Composer / Pianist  Robert  Parris

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Robert Parris (21 May 1924 – 5 December 1999) was a composer and professor of music.

He was born in Philadelphia, attended the University of Pennsylvania, then the Juilliard School in New York. Among his teachers were Otto Luening, Aaron Copland, Jacques Ibert, and Peter Mennin (although he always claimed that the effect of these teachers on his own composing technique was 'minimal'). After a year of study on a Fulbright Fellowship in Paris (where he was meant to study with Arthur Honegger, but hardly ever saw him), and a year teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle, he settled in the Washington, D.C. area in 1952. Parris joined the faculty of The George Washington University in 1963 where he taught theory and composition.

Parris liked to describe himself as a 'colorist', and therefore tended to write for small ensembles or a single instrument accompanied by piano or orchestra. His first international recognition came in 1958 with his Concerto for Five Kettledrums and Orchestra, premiered by tympanist Fred Begun and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, under Howard Mitchell. Parris was notorious for pushing instruments to the limits of any player's abilities: his Solo Violin Sonata is particularly difficult, and the composer-directors of CRI believed his Trombone Concerto to be unplayable until they heard a recording of it. But he was also the most inventive of orchestrators. Parris's Concerto for Kettledrums was always a crowd-pleaser in performance because it was so surprisingly melodic. Its last movement is built around a traditional hymn (like Copland's Appalachian Spring) but Parris gives the initial statements of that hymn — and its dramatic summation — to the kettledrums. Begun, the NSO principal tympanist who premiered the piece, made the original suggestion for the piece, but he later remarked, "I suggested five drums jestingly."

In the sixties and seventies Parris was a sometime music critic for the Washington Post and the Washington Evening Star. In this period Parris — who taught himself Spanish — also turned to Borges for inspiration, and produced the Book of Imaginary Beings (Part I) a work for flute (pic), violin, cello, piano, celeste, and percussion, from 1972. Part II was published in 1983.

A revival of the Concerto for Five Kettledrums and Orchestra, also in 1983, by the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich, was such a success that it resulted in new performances of his Concerto for Trombone (first performed in 1964) by the NSO in 1985 and, then, to Parris's largest commission. His Symphonic Variations, performed in 1988 to great acclaim, was the result. A retrospective concert of his works at The George Washington University in this same year led Washington Post music critic Joseph McLellan to refer to Professor Parris as “one of (Washington’s) major music assets.”

--  Names which are links on this page refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 

In October of 1988, Parris allowed me to call him on the telephone for an interview in anticipation of his upcoming 85th birthday.  Portions of our conversation
— along with some recordings of his musicwere used on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago on that occasion, and again both five and ten years later.

Only a few of the works by Parris have been commercially recorded, and those which appeared on LP have been re-issued on a single CD, which is shown at the bottom of this webpage, along with the notes he wrote about the pieces.

As usual, I would send my guest a copy of the WNIB Program Guide when their program(s) ran, and occasionally I would get a letter in return.  The one from Parris is shown below.

parrisIt is a pleasure to now be able to present the entire conversation on this webpage . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’ve been both composer and teacher, as well as a critic.

Robert Parris:    Oh I was, but you left out a very important part of my life.  I’m a pianist and harpsichordist.
  I’ve been living in Washington since 1952, and there was a time when people thought of me as a pianist.  Then, especially when the National Symphony began to play my music, they thought of me as a composer, and they could never really reconcile the two.  So I’m either a pianist or a composer.  But if you’re a composer, you can’t be a very good piano player, and if you’re a piano player, of course you’re not recognized as a composer.

BD:    Right!

RP:    But I’m not a tuba player.  Somebody, David Ewen I think, said he was going to write a biography for his book, and he sent me an advance copy which said my first instrument was the tuba.  I played it for about ten days in junior high school when I was twelve years old.  Where he got that bit of information, I haven’t the vaguest idea!  [Both laugh]

BD:    It sounds like you’re a presidential candidate, and they’ve gone interviewing all of your teachers back to kindergarten.

RP:    [Laughs]

BD:    [With mock seriousness]  So the tuba is not something that you’ve gained wide recognition in!

RP:    No, but I still remember the fingering, and when I’m writing for brass these days, it does occur to me this or that would be practical or impossible, especially in glissando passages.

BD:    Is there such a thing as a slide tuba?

RP:    No, there’s no slide tuba.

BD:    There is a slide trumpet, of course, and the trombone...

RP:    There is a valve trombone, though I haven’t seen one.

BD:    We had one of those when I was in high school.  Somebody brought it in one day, and we all played on it a little bit.  We decided the valve trombone would be ideal for a marching band! 

RP:    It protects the person in front of the marcher!  [Laughs]

BD:    Right!  And because of all the movement and swaying, the positions of the slides are always getting sloppy.

RP:    Of course!

BD:    So a valve trombone would be more comfortable that way.  Do you have any knowledge or speculation as to why the valve trombone never really caught on?

RP:    No, I haven’t the vaguest idea.  I’m sure lots of people know, but I don’t.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to your career, you’ve been teacher and composer and keyboardist and critic.  How did you divide your time amongst those many activities?

RP:    Well, you can’t do everything every day.  I wrote for the Washington papers from approximately 1961
three or four years for the Washington Post, and then subsequently for the now defunct Washington Star.  That did not take all day.  It was maybe two or three times a week in the evening.

BD:    You were reviewing concerts?

RP:    Reviewing concerts for which they paid me, at that time, something between $15 and $25 a go.

BD:    A princely sum!

RP:    [Chuckles]  So that really didn’t take much time.  Then, as far as piano playing is concerned, I started out as a pianist, really.  I played all through my teens.  I played my way through high school, and I’ve been playing concerts ever since.  I haven’t played solo piano in quite some time.  I’ve given a few harpsichord recitals, and I play chamber music as much as I can, but I don’t practice unless... well, it’s not quite true now.  I’m getting interested in music that I’d missed along the way, and I’m actually practicing for myself.  It’s very strange because it’s not part of the way I’d been living musically.  But mostly what I practice for is concerts, and when there’s no concerts I don’t practice.  I don’t see any point.  It takes me exactly three days to get my technique back in shape, and when isn’t not going to be consumed, so to speak
, I see no point.  I don’t know why, but I have gotten involved in pieces that I should have played when I was much younger and never did, like a couple of the Chopin Nocturnes, the Éstampes of Debussy, and so forth. 

BD:    [Somewhat surprised]  You don’t feel that your own listening and pleasure is enough consumption?

RP:    After you’re used to an audience for years and years and years, it’s very, very difficult to do it for yourself.  As a matter of fact, after writing for an audience, it’s very difficult to write music when you don’t have a commission and you have no concert in mind.  It’s just to reminiscence of those bad days in one’s twenties when you wrote and put it away, and the idea of it being played was only a wild dream.  Luckily, I’ve had some success, as most of my music has been played
sometimes, unfortunately, only once, and sometimes not very well that once — but everybody knows that first performances aren’t all that hard to come by.  It’s the second performances that are impossible.  As a matter of fact, some years back there was an idea bandied about for a Society for the Promulgation of Second Performances.  I think it’s a lovely idea, but it seems rather limited, doesn’t it?  As far as teaching is concerned, that’s the way I make a living at George Washington University, and here in my house where I teach piano and harpsichord.  I have some budding composers, and some theory students, but that doesn’t really take time from writing music, which is what I think of myself as doing most and best.

BD:    We’ll come back to your composition in just a moment, but let me ask about the teaching for just a brief moment.  Is composition something that really can be taught, or must it be mostly innate within each young composer?

RP:    It can be taught, but not directly.  On the part of the pupil, it is assumed that there is aptitude and ability there.  It’s certainly worth the struggle.  There are composers who didn’t believe in teaching composition.  Dallapiccola didn’t.  When I met him, he was teaching piano in Florence.  When Bartók came here, I believe he was offered a position at the University of Minnesota, and as poor as he was, he refused because he said it couldn’t be taught.  He taught piano here, but certainly he made his living that way when he wasn’t doing his musicology in Hungary.  Hindemith taught, but it was mostly his theoretical system that he taught, and that’s the reason most of his pupils turned out to be something like ‘little Hindemiths!’  Not one, to my knowledge, has had any real success.  They’re so imbued with the Hindemith technique that nothing else was gospel apparently.  That’s one of the dangers of being with a very strong teacher.  It’s what I object to, although there’s less justification to object to in the matter of the so-called ‘Boulangerie’, the host full of Boulanger pupils who were, I think, unduly stylistically influenced by her.

BD:    Then how do you go about the teaching of composition?

RP:    Well, I tell them first that I can’t teach them, and that it’s a very subtle process.  I’m not going to tell you that this F# is wrong, and that A might work.  It has nothing to do with that.  I could help you with your orchestration; I can help you with the building of form; I can tell you when I think you’ve not gone on long enough, or when it’s going to take more development; I can tell you when you need to change your color; I can tell you when this has to happen and when that should happen, but I can’t tell you the notes and, of course, every time you say,
“No, or I disagree with you, the lesson is over.  Good-bye!  See you next week, because clearly that’s all you have to say.  I can’t improve anything.  All I can do is give you the benefit of my experience and my technique, which I can foist onto you if you’ll let me, but you have to be receptive.  However, mostly it’s a matter of encouragement, of getting along, and that has to do with personality with each pupil.  I might ask you to write, let’s say, twenty more bars for next week, and we’ll take it from there, and we’ll see what happens.  What actually happens in a compositional lesson is different with every pupil.  Mostly it’s a matter of my looking at it, and trying to find out what the weaknesses are and the strengths are, and whether if this or that section, or this or that bar, were dwelt on and pursued.  It would be style and, at bottom, what makes him go musically.  It takes so long to develop a musical styleten years, maybe, or even twenty years.  The way I think of it since everybody begins by imitating somebodymaybe not everybody, it’s impossible, but lots of people — what really happens is that you get all this stuff out.  You go through your Stravinsky period, and you go maybe through your Hindemith period, and you begin at one point writing or rewriting a moment of Prokofiev.  All this comes out, and you realize it’s nonsense!  If you’re lucky, very soon after it’s done you realize that it isn’t quite you, but there are parts of the piece that might be.  Anyway, all this stuff goes into a gigantic colander, a sieve, and everybody else’s music is just washed away.  It goes down the drain, and the little bit of you is left sitting.  If you have enough insight and are perspicacious enough, and you have a good teacher who will say, “That is you, that’s what you build on, and after a number of years you wind up with this style that people will recognize.  When I say ‘style’, what I’m saying really is what Hindemith called ‘the crowning glory’ of technique.  With enough technique comes style.

BD:    Have you been encouraged by the students that you have been teaching over the years?

RP:    Not verbally, but a couple of them have done pretty well in the sense that they are respectable and respected at least by some other composers.  Sure!  I’m always amazed that it actually does work; that after I work with a composer for three or four years, it does show results.  You see, it’s so imponderable; it’s so abstract.  What is composition technique after all?  I remember Irving Fine (1914-1962), a big composer who died fairly young, talking with me at Tanglewood at one point, and he gave me this fairly marvelous compliment.  He said I had a big compositional technique.  I looked at him in the funniest way possible, and he looked back at me funnily because he didn’t expect my funny look!  I didn’t really know what he was talking about.  As a pianist I knew what technique was.  You practice every day, and you get your fingers moving until you can do what you wanted to with the music.  But how do you practice compositional technique, for heaven’s sakes?  Eventually I came to know that it’s a lot more subtle.  First of all, it’s a matter of saying what you mean.  You have to have a certain amount of ability and be very, very self-critical.  You have to have some insight, and you have to put yourself in the position of the audience and say,
No, that’s not going to work.  They’re going to be bored by the time they get to this point.  It’s just too long.  It’s that kind of objective looking at what you’ve done, or hearing what you’ve done, going back and back and back, and fixing and fixing and fixing!  My wife makes a sort of joke about it!  I’d come out and I’d say, I just finished a piece, and she says, So which time?  [Both laugh]  Then I’d do it the next night, and I’d do it the next night.  It’s a little bit obvious to say a piece is never finished.  Of course a piece is finished, but certainly not the first time.  It is just like with a speech or anything else — there is a first draft and second draft and third draft.

BD:    Then how do you know which draft is actually the final result?  How do you determine when you’ve got to put the pen down and let the piece go on it’s own?

RP:    One easy answer is when you can’t stand to look at it anymore!   The other is when you’re satisfied that this is the best you can do, that’s all.  It’s very simple.

BD:    Do you ever hear the piece and then go back and revise it?

RP:    Oh, that’s a very thorny subject, especially with orchestra music, because with so little time available these days, you’re never
at least I’m neverreally sure whose fault it is, the conductor’s or mine.  I had a piece played by the National Symphony earlier this year, and most of it came off quite well.  However, there were spots that gave me fits, and talking to the conductor helps a little bit, but not enough.  I still think it perhaps was a matter of balance, but I’ll never know unless I hear the piece again.  What I did was to take the next three or four months off, and fix the piece.  It was very frustrating because I kept thinking I don’t have to do this!  It’s not the piece, it was at the performance, but you can’t be sure, so you do it again.  That’s the way it is.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music and the notes are going down on the page, are you always in control of the pencil, or are there times when that pencil is really controlling your hand?

RP:    [Thinks a moment]  Sometimes I wish that were possible.  I wish it were so easy for the pencil to go like the apprentice’s broom, [laughs] but it never does that.  The pencil is very hard to push.  It doesn’t go automatically, no.

BD:    Are you ever surprised where the piece takes you, or do you always know in advance where you’re going to wind up?

RP:    I never knew in advance.  I remember reading that Somerset Maugham said,
How can I possibly know what I’m thinking until I write it?  I feel exactly the same way there.  There are composers who had the whole piece lined up before they start.  My head simply doesn’t work that way.  Hindemith wrote it in that book that was the Harvard lectures, which he did in 1960, that a person isn’t a real composer until it can come, so to speak, full blown out of his head, and all it takes is writing it down.  But he was given to saying things like that.  He was a pretty arrogant man.  He said one mustn’t write music unless you have absolute pitch, and there are all sorts of composers without it.  He also said that you should play every instrument before you write for it, which I think is perfect nonsense.  You would spend your life learning every instrument, and play them all badly, and there’s not much time left for writing music.

BD:    So you should learn a bit about each instrument, but you don’t have to become a professional performer on it?

RP:    With me it just works the opposite, as a matter of fact.  The less I know, the better because my imagination is freer.

BD:    There must be some things you must learn, like you can’t slide on a tuba...

RP:    Oh, sure, basic technique, but you don’t have to know fingerings unless you’re going to write a trill that you suspect might be as impossible.  Then you go to an orchestration book and look it up.  That takes thirty seconds, and it’s no big deal.

BD:    Does it require that you have the sound of each instrument in your ear, and that you know how to combine those various colors?

RP:    Yes, absolutely.  You hope, sure.  But composers these days have little opportunity to write for orchestra.  It’s not like Haydn at the Esterhazy Castle.

BD:    Even writing for chamber group, you would need to know how to mix the various combinations of sounds.

RP:    Oh sure, I don’t think there’s any question there.  Writing for a large orchestra is another story, and each time it has to be tested.

BD:    You said that you prefer writing on commission.  When you’ve got a commission, how do you decide whether you accept it or postpone it, or even decline it?

RP:    Since I always need the money, there is never a problem.  [Laughs]

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  So if someone came to you and wanted a piece for tuba and ocarina you would write it???

RP:    I think there are limits!  No, I wouldn’t write for ocarina though I would write for tuba and flute.  I would write for all kinds of things, but I will not write for the accordion, and I will not probably write any more for the guitar.

BD:    [Being armchair impressario]  But our local orchestra has a virtuoso ocarina player, and we want a new piece for him!

RP:    Well, what I’ll do is write for a piccolo and let him transcribe it.  How’s that?  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Did your writing of music criticism on a regular basis influence your work as a composer?

RP:    I don’t think so, except at that point when I was writing, I did get to hear more live music than I have since.  It was very little that I didn’t know, but there were pieces here and there, and I suppose those new pieces add to your repertoire of knowledge.  So one way or another, there’s a trickle down which can affect your writing, but not appreciably and certainly not concretely.  No, that wouldn’t bother me.  As a matter of fact, nothing bothers my writing, nor my playing, nor teaching.  There are some people who say that if they have to teach beginners, if they have to teach elementary theory, if they have to teach this or that they simply cannot bring themselves to be themselves later in the evening or whenever they write their music.  I don’t have any trouble with that at all.  There’s a very definite dichotomy, a real break between what I teach during the day and what I write.

BD:    It doesn’t make you schizophrenic in any way?

RP:    No, no.  As a matter of fact, I love teach, and I like to teach beginners if they’re interested.  I have a knack for writing notes and manipulating tones.  Sure, it’s fun.

BD:    Then let me turn the question around.  Did your being a composer influence the way you wrote music criticism?

RP:    Oh yes, that’s quite a different story because a composer has to deliver his style, and if he’s not awfully careful, he will depreciate other styles.  That’s a real danger.  Being a composer has made me aware of what a good piece is
at least technicallywithout so many hearings as I would have needed otherwise.  I can tell when I’m hearing a good piece for the first time or a second time without knowing all about the piece.  I can’t qualify it; I can’t judge it, except good or bad; I cannot talk about degrees.  All I can do is say that there is a real composer at work when it’s perfectly obvious.  One of the pieces in that regard which gave me real fits this week was the opera Nixon in China, the John Adams piece.  At first I hated it.  I thought it was nonsense.  I don’t really approve of this minimalism ideal.  But I heard it in rehearsal, I heard a performance, and then I heard a tape, and I changed my mind about it.  The piece is extremely problematical, but being a composer made me aware that the man has an enormous personality, and that there is a lot there.  There’s a lot I don’t really like.  I don’t like the style in general, but the man’s a terrific talent and there’s a lot in it that’s memorable.  So it’s a mixed bag as far as I’m concerned.  But being a composer certainly helped me evaluate it.  An awful lot of people hated the piece because they weren’t quite aware of the imagination involved, and you have to do it to appreciate it.

BD:    Should the ordinary public that goes to concerts and opera be aware of all the technical difficulties and the compositional problems that you are aware of working in the business day after day?

RP:    No, absolutely not.  It’s not to be expected, and they can’t be.  That’s the composer’s business.  All that matters to an audience is whether they’re moved by the piece or not.  Unfortunately, an awful lot of people don’t expect to be moved by modern music, or by contemporary music.  It’s a pity, because if they were more open they would be moved by at least some.  But it’s also a mistake for most people to go a contemporary music concert and be surprised if they don’t like the piece.  Let’s take houses, clothes, cooking, cars... how many are first class?  And with the exception of cars, how many were first class back in 1800, and in 1700?  Why should anybody expect, especially if they hear one piece every six months, that it should be a masterpiece?  Most of everything you hear and do and buy isn’t any good, and that’s perfectly normal.  How can everybody be great talent?  An awful lot of people write music who are talented.  Some are better talent, some are good talent, and there are probably some great talents around.  But why should you expect to hear this great talent when you go to an occasional concert?  It would not be normal if it were good.

BD:    Is the management of the symphony orchestra and the opera house making a mistake by basically only playing, night after night, year after year, the acknowledged masterpieces?

RP:    Yes, they are making a mistake because the only way that the cream will have a chance to rise is for it to get played.  I know it’s appreciated, but the fact is that it does rise.  I don’t have any idea what the dynamics of this process are.  It’s absolutely incredible.  But if you look back on the efforts of musicology in the past seventy-five years or so, one of the morals that you can derive from this academic activity is that barrels’ bottoms should probably be left unscraped.  There’s very little there.  It’s odd.  One of the necessary things involved is for music to be played, and of course it’s a mistake to leave new music unplayed.  On the other hand, you mustn’t expect every piece to be a masterpiece, nor does every piece deserve to be played simply because it’s a new piece of music.  You have to look at it, you have to examine it, and you have to have good reasons to play it
namely, you have to like it and you have to respect it.

BD:    Let me ask the great philosophical question then.  What is the purpose of music in society?

RP:    I have no idea.  [Both laugh]  I think it’s a luxury.  People have said they can’t live without music, but you know what?  I think I could live without music.  I wouldn’t want to.  I wouldn’t want to live without chocolate cake.  I wouldn’t want to live without tobacco, but I could survive very well without all of those things.  I think it’s a wrong-headed idea that you can’t live without this or that.  Music is not a basic need.  I know that sounds almost heretical from a composer.  It sounds almost sinful, but I think I am being realistic.

‘Realistic is the word that comes to my mind, actually. 

RP:    Good, I’m glad.  I’m glad you might agree with me.  I feel a bit heretical.

BD:    In the music that you write, or in music in general, where is the balance between any artistic achievement and entertainment value?

RP:    It depends by what you mean by
entertainment.  If you think of rock music as entertainment, if you think Jerome Kern is entertainment, if you think of Johann Strauss as entertainment, what does that mean?  Going away from the hall singing a tune?  Are your spirits lifted?  Do you want to dance?  What is entertainment?  I’m not quite sure.  People go to concerts of ‘art music’, or concert music or what we could call ‘uncommercial’ music because nobody makes any money from it.  [Both have a huge laugh]  Yes, that’s really the best way to talk about the two kinds of music as commercial and uncommercial.  Do people go to hear Beethoven to be entertained?  I think so.  There’s no more entertaining composer in this world, as far as I’m concerned, than Mozart.  For years and years, when people asked me who my favorite composer was, I wouldn’t say.  It was a tough question because you take the best from everybody.  But right now I don’t think there’s anybody like Mozart.  He entertains me, and he moves me, and he makes me laugh, and I admire his wit.

BD:    All in the same piece, or in different pieces?

RP:    If you take a piece like the C Major Piano Concerto, K. 503, yes, all in the same piece.  If you take a piece like The Marriage of Figaro, absolutely.  If you take some of the piano sonatas, no because they were written probably in a half-hour one morning before breakfast.  They’re different.  Mozart has his days, too, you know, so it’s quite different.  But Mozart was entertainment.  How do you talk about the Strausses?  There are some people who say that Richard Strauss is just as much entertainment music as the other Strauss.  I don’t think there’s any line between different kinds of music.  I don’t know quite what you’re suggesting
— that there is a difference between entertainment music and edifying music?

BD:    Perhaps.

RP:    I’m not even sure the line is even fluid.  I think it becomes superimposed.

BD:    So where does the music of Robert Parris fit into all of this discussion?

RP:    You have to ask the audience.  I have no idea.  [Laughs]  The maker is sort of out of the discussion because what he thinks has very little to do with what other people think, and the way it’s received.  As far as my own music is concerned, I write to entertain, but in the best sense.  Bach dedicated his Goldberg Variations to,
“Connoisseurs for the refreshment of their spirits.”  My take is that amateurs will be entertained, and connoisseurs will be edified.

parrisBD:    And you hope for this in your music?

RP:    Oh, I don’t expect anything of it.  I hope for this, though.  I’ve written some funny music, some very funny music.  There’s a piece you have on a record, which is No. 6 from The Book of Imaginary Beings is called The Double.  When I wrote that piece, I read the superscription that is appended to it, and it’s actually one of the fables of Borges in his book of the same name, and apparently animals, just as people, have two sides to themselves.  [Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges KBE (24 August 1899 – 14 June 1986), was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, and a key figure in Spanish-language literature.]  The Double represents the opposite nature from this obvious self.  Whether it’s your true self or not, no one knows.  The first thing I thought of was how could I do this in music, and I thought of the silly Swan of Camille Saints-Saëns, and how this blithe creature  sits practically motionless on the water, but is so idyllic.  But the fact is everybody knows that there’s a lot of aggression to that animal.  It’s really a mean beast, so don’t tangle with any swans.  So I put together my idea of the ferocity of the swan, and I simply copied over, note for note, the original
Saints-Saëns, not abrogating nor breaking any copyright laws, I assume.  Actually it wasn’t quite the original because he wrote it for two pianos, and I have it played by one.  I can’t hear it today without laughing.  It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard in my life.  So yes, I hope my music is sometimes funny, and sometimes entertaining in the light sense, and lots of times otherwise.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Since you brought up one of the recordings, let me ask if you are you basically pleased with all of the ones which have been issued.

RP:    I’m pleased with the Percussion Concerto and The Book of Imaginary Beings, and mostly with the Trombone Concerto.  It was recorded in Poland, and I wasn’t invited to be there.  I probably wouldn’t have gone, anyway.  I did not know the trombonist.  I hadn’t worked with him, so there was no coaching from me.  I had absolutely nothing to do say about it, and most of it came off incredibly well.  But they didn’t have much idea of balance, especially the piano part.  In the first movement it came out sounding like a dinner bell more often than not.  There are other problems where you can’t hear what you’re supposed to hear, but mostly it’s a matter of mic placement.

BD:    So you give it a grade of B+?

RP:    Something like that, yes.  Rostropovich did it with the National Symphony in 1983.  I have a tape of that, and it came off a lot better.  Recordings are so expensive to make, but the others are marvelous performances, and they’re very well recorded.

BD:    Tell me more about The Book of Imaginary Beings.

RP:    Well, that’s a little difficult.  I tend to forget pieces the day after I write them.

BD:    OK... Is it something that must be played always complete, or can we play a few of them?

RP:    I don’t see why you couldn’t play a few of them.  I’ve never heard it done like that, but there’s certainly nothing in the way.  The last movement, Amphisbaena Retroversa, is the first movement absolutely backwards
with a couple of tiny exceptions because it simply couldn’t be arranged like that.  That was symbolic because the Amphisbaena is this animal who not exactly has two heads, but it has teeth in its head and its tail.  It was a kind of living and breathing palindrome, you might say, so that was symbolic.  It would eat you up with either end, so it should be able to go backwards and forwards.  What surprised me, at least in this performance, the running it through backwards was slightly more successful than the original.  I don’t know why that should be.  It may have been after something like seven or eight hours of recording time, everybody was so happy to get it out of the way, so they simply played it better and said, “Come on, let’s go out for dinner.  [Laughs]  I remember this was a long, long session we had at the University of Maryland, but the players were just marvelous, and they wanted to do it over and over and over again to get things exactly right, which they did.

BD:    Is there any chance that by doing it over and over, and being able to take pieces here and pieces there, and assemble a performance, that it becomes a fraud?

RP:    There is always that, but since these pieces were so comparatively short, there were very few composite takes of each one piece.  It was mostly a matter of running through each of them as many times as they wanted to, but not to use any pieces within movements.

BD:    But still you’ve assembled the best eight out of so many takes.

RP:    Well, in terms of performance you might call it a fraud, but from my point of view it’s just the opposite.  It was as good as possible, and it’s exactly what I wanted, so there’s nothing fraudulent there.

BD:    Is there any possibility that a stage performance could equal or even surpass this recording?

RP:    It’s possible.  I’m now quite sure how.  I have never heard another performance of it, actually.  It was done once to my knowledge in Kansas City, but it’s so difficult, and I just don’t know who would spend that many hours getting it together.  It’s a very, very difficult piece to do, and the days have passed when people would devote twenty or thirty of rehearsals on one piece as they did in Schoenberg’s day.

BD:    You say those days are passed to be able to spend so much rehearsal time.  Is it really necessary or desirable to rehearse a piece so very, very much?

parrisRP:    I actually think that a piece shouldn’t be all that hard that it takes that it takes that much time.  A reasonable number of hours... let’s say four or five rehearsals of three or four hours each with professional musicians.  More should not be necessary, but I suppose there could be exceptions.  I remember that Schoenberg demanded it and got it for some of his later works.  It could have been Pierrot Lunaire that I’m thinking of.  [There were forty rehearsals for that work.]  They went over it and over it and over it and over it.

BD:    It is mentioned in the note to the Trombone Concerto that, when looking at the piece, they didn’t understand how anyone could play it.  But then they heard a tape and realized that it could be done.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with George Rochberg and Charles Wuorinen.]

RP:    It isn’t all that tough when the trombonist knows his part.  It’s mostly that.  The rhythms are tricky, but after The Rite of Spring, I don’t think any rhythms are that tricky anymore.  There’s lots of 5s and 7s, and changes and so forth, but the real virtuosity is on the part of the trombonist.

BD:    Did you write it to be tricky?

RP:    Oh no.

BD:    That’s just the way it had to come out?

RP:    It always has to come out the way it does.  I never write anything to be tricky, but I must say I do have a sense of drama when writing for solo instruments.  I had a teacher who imbued me with that when I was very early on.  I was playing piano concertos long before I should have been, and there’s a built-in drama that is not found in purely orchestral music.  Seeing a nine-foot Steinway sitting up there with the lid open in front of an orchestra, the audience has just hushed itself and everybody’s expectantly waiting for the pianist as hero to march out and say,
“Here I am!  That’s a very, very exciting and dramatic moment.  When I write for solo instruments in an orchestra, I don’t have it in mind, but I have it in body if you follow it through.  The soloist is a kind of hero, and Mozart knew that.  When the pianist enters, especially in the late piano concertos, most of the concertos have solo parts that begin with a tune that sometimes is never heard after.  I am not quite sure that’s true with Mozart, but I think it’s true of the Beethoven First Piano Concerto.  But those composers were very, very aware that they were writing something almost comparable to the operatic idea, and that soloist was the hero.  He was the protagonist, and they took advantage of this drama.

BD:    Now is the hero really the performer, or is the hero supposed to be the composer?

RP:    I’m exaggerating here, but back in the old days, there didn’t seem to be very much difference what Liszt did to other people’s music.  That’s the way he thought about it.  It’s changed a lot now, and I don’t think that performers think of themselves as composers... although I read in The New York Times that Horovitz said that there isn’t a first-class performing artist who doesn’t really have a bit of inferiority complex, because what he really wants to be is a composer.  After all, his work might or might not live, but what happens to the notes a piano player plays, they are here today and gone tomorrow.

BD:    Have we changed that a little bit by the idea of recordings; that the pianist’s interpretation is now embedded in plastic?

RP:    Yes and no.  Plastic doesn’t represent a concert.  As you implied before, in a sense it’s a bit of a fraud because nobody plays like that.  People did play like that before tape recordings.  I remember some Rubenstein recordings that I grew up which were so faulty as to be funny, but you really heard what people sounded like then.  I am sure you’ve heard this anecdote... I heard it in terms of Reiner and a pianist.  The two of them were sitting, listening to a tape after a recording session, and the pianist said,
I didn’t know I played that well, and Reiner said, You don’t.  [Both have a huge laugh]  I don’t know whether there’s any comparison there with interpretation in plastic, and what the composer does. 

BD:    Of course there are broadcast tapes which will exist for years, and occasionally some will be dug out and permission granted to listen to them or broadcast them again.

RP:    Yes, but I’m thinking of myself, too, when I say this, so I’m not being really pejorative because I do play the piano, and I like the applause, and I love to do it, and it’s a lot of fun, and though I might not look it, I feel like a hero on the stage.  But the fact is that a performer is a performer, and he’s recreating.  He’s not creating.  Thinking of the history of performance, it goes back to the first actor, to the first juggler, to first dancer.  There really isn’t much difference.  It’s doing a thing for people, and wanting the approbation, and so forth.  But in the end, there is no permanent record and an awful lot of people don’t feel the need for permanent records.

BD:    You’ve played both side of the fence now.

RP:    Right.

BD:    As a composer, how much interpretive leeway do you expect or desire on the part of that interpreter?

RP:    I expect a lot of interpretation after I get finished saying my peace, and I think that’s what Beethoven would have expected too.  Pianist Olga Samaroff (1880-1948) was married to Stokowski at one point, and she used to say,
Exhaust the page and then add what you have to add.  In other words, what the composer didn’t put down, you’re free to deal with, but you have to do as much as you can with what you’ve got in order to see everything that’s there, and you have to know very much.

Olga Samaroff (August 8, 1880 – May 17, 1948) was born Lucy Mary Olga Agnes Hickenlooper in San Antonio, Texas, and grew up in Galveston, where her family owned a business later wiped out in the 1900 Galveston hurricane. After her talent for the piano was discovered, she was sent to Europe to study, since at that time there were no great piano teachers in the United States. She first studied with Antoine François Marmontel at the Conservatoire de Paris and later with Ernst Jedliczka in Berlin. While in Berlin, she was very briefly married to Russian engineer Boris Loutzky.

After her divorce from Loutzky and the disaster which claimed her family's business, she returned to the United States and tried to carve out a career as a pianist. However, she soon discovered she was hampered both by her awkward name and her American origins. Her agent suggested a professional name change, which was taken from a remote relative.

As Olga Samaroff, she self-produced her New York debut at Carnegie Hall in 1905 (the first woman ever to do so). She hired the hall, the orchestra, and conductor Walter Damrosch, and made an overwhelming impression with her performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. She played extensively in the United States and Europe thereafter.


Samaroff discovered Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) when he was church organist at St. Bartholemew's in New York and later conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. She played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 under Stokowski's direction when he made his official conducting debut in Paris with the Colonne Orchestra on May 12, 1909.

She married Stokowski in 1911, and their daughter Sonya was born in 1921. At that time, Samaroff was much more famous than her husband and was able to lobby her contacts to get Stokowski appointed in 1912 to the vacant conductor's post at the Philadelphia Orchestra, launching his international career. Samaroff made a number of recordings in the early 1920s for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Samaroff was the second pianist in history, after Hans von Bulow, to perform all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in public, preceding Artur Schnabel (who did the series first in 1927) by several years.

In 1923, Samaroff and Stokowski divorced; the reasons included Stokowski's infidelity, from which she never recovered. She took refuge in her friends, among whom were George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Dorothy Parker, and Cary Grant. In 1925, Samaroff fell in her New York apartment and suffered an injury to her shoulder. The injury forced her to retire from performing. So from that point on, she worked primarily as a critic and teacher. She also wrote for the New York Evening Post until 1928, and she gave guest lectures throughout the 1930s.

Samaroff developed a course of music study for laymen and was the first music teacher to be broadcast on NBC television. She taught at the Philadelphia Conservatory and in 1924, was invited to join the faculty of the newly formed Juilliard School in New York. She taught at both schools for the rest of her life. Called "Madam" by her students, she was an advocate for them. She supplied many of her Depression-era charges with concert clothes and food. She also pressed officials at Juilliard to build a dormitory – a project that was not realized until after her death decades later. Her most famous pupil was concert pianist William Kapell, who was killed in a 1953 plane crash at age 31. She herself said that the best pianist she ever taught was the New Zealander Richard Farrell, who also died at age 31, in a motor vehicle accident in England in 1958.

Samaroff published an autobiography, An American Musician's Story, in 1939. She died of a heart attack at her home in New York on the evening of May 17, 1948, after giving several lessons that day.

When Chopin phrased a certain way, or when he wrote this or that pedaling, examine and see whether it’s possible on a modern piano or not; whether his metronome mark is diametrically opposed to what people expect, and what you expect.  The metronome marks are wildly fast.  Nobody ever goes along with Chopin’s metronome marks.  So you have to do what you can, and then you add.  With my music I feel exactly the same way.  Stay with my tempos, stay with my dynamics, stay with my phrasing, stay as much as possible with my string bowings, and then it’s all yours.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Where’s music going today?

RP:    They asked me that as a graduation question when I was at the Juilliard School.  I made up something, but I was uncomfortable because clearly nobody can know.  I don’t know what to do with questions about the future.  Obviously, I don’t know.

BD:    Then where does it appear to be heading?  I’m not asking you to look at the end of the tunnel, but to look at the next few feet along the path.

RP:    When you’re right in the middle of it, it always looks the same.  It probably looked the same way a hundred years ago, that there are all these threads, and they’re all pulling in different directions.  Now there’s tape music, and there’s minimalist music, and there’s maximalist music, and there’s a so-called neo-romanticism, and people are discovering flats and sharps in key signatures, and some people are going along the way they have been.  I doubt very much if they will all come together, but looking back fifty years from now, these things will come together, and you will be able to see the highlights, and this music we think of now as quite disparate, really has much in common.  I don’t know what people are going to call our age.  That’s perhaps another way of answering your question.  What will 1990 look like in 2025?  I hope it won’t look like a period of deadly reaction, but it seems to be going that way because in the past fifteen years or so, composers have seemed to simply run out of revolutionary energy.  It’s odd, but all the shocking music of the
50s and 60s, and even part of the 70s is something that’s not with us anymore.

BD:    Should music always be shocking?

RP:    No.  But the fermentation defining the activity always means energy.  It’s a sign of energy.  With energy is something in the making.  That doesn’t mean the first is best, but it could produce something eventually which could be quite special.  I don’t see that now at all.  I see people going back and writing pretty music, a lot of it without much substance.  But composers who write a bad kind of music of any style probably always wrote a bad kind of music.  It doesn’t surprise me very much.  There’s one composer, who shall be nameless, who started out as a tonal composer and wasn’t much good at that.  He became a twelve-tone composer, and he didn’t like that either, nor did anybody else.  Now he’s writing tonal music again, and rather simple stuff that sounds almost like Eric Satie, and that’s not terribly good either.  What’s the difference?  Does a style matter all that much if a composer’s a good one or a bad one?  That’s the way it goes.

BD:    Earlier you threw around a few of the labels that are going about these days.  Is there any nice little label that can applied to some or all of your music?

RP:    Labels are very nice and general because they’re confining, and almost do not admit of interpretation.  I have no idea where I am, except I’m none of those things.  I am
None of the Above.  [Bursts out laughing]

BD:    As you approach your 65th birthday, what is perhaps the most interesting or surprising thing that you have noted in music over that time?

RP:    I suppose the advent of the tape machine.  It certainly did change things a lot.

BD:    For the better or for the worse, or just change?

RP:    I think it is just change.  I don’t think in terms of better or worse.  If it’s there, it’s there.  You cannot talk historically about things like that because there are always super-talents who will deal very, very beautifully with whatever performing media are around.  At one time I put forward the idea of beating up a piano in a way.  Maybe that’s not an accurate expression, but I mean opening the lid and leaning into a piano with drumsticks in your hand, and beating the strings as if you were a misplaced percussionist.  It was very foolish.  If you wanted to make that kind of sound, you should buy yourself a specific or an appropriate instrument, and play on the keys of a piano because that’s what they’re there for.  On the other hand, I realize now that probably is a very limited way of thinking.  But I still think somebody in white tie and tail coat, with the bench out of the way and his rear end sticking up in the air with a drumstick in his hand beating a low C string on the piano is one of the funniest sights in the world.  Still, if it makes a sound that cannot be produced in any other way, and it works to the good effect of the music, why not?  It probably could be done …

BD:    But who is to decide if it’s a good effect?

RP:    As I said, the cream rises, and we will see.  I’m thinking of the sound effects, especially the music of George Crumb where he is taking a poor innocent gong and sticking it in bucket of water, whacking it, and dipping it in and out as it makes sounds.  The sounds that come out can be very seductive, and probably the sound can be made in other ways.  His music is extremely pleasant to listen to.  It’s very, very pretty.  There’s something perverse about the way he goes about making his sounds, but that’s personal and, as I say, I tend to be unduly influenced with my sense of humor, which sometimes gets in the way.  A performance of a typical Crumb piece always looks like something out the Hoffnung cartoons of musical instruments.  I think it’s a kind of perversity.  On the other hand, there’s no denying his creative instincts and talent.  They’re absolutely terrific and probably quite limited, but what he says there he does extremely well.  So I don’t think it’s a matter of good or bad.  As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t heard any tape music that I could really love, but maybe I will.  Maybe it hasn’t been written yet?  I don’t think all that matters.  That is one of the advantages of reaching a certain age.  I have no idea whether this 65 is old or not.  God knows I don’t feel any different from when I was 35.


BD:    That’s good!  Age is relative.  If you feel old, you are old, but if you feel still young, there’s nothing you cannot do.

RP:    That’s what they keep telling me.   But people don’t keep coming up and asking me,
How do you feel?  30?  45?  What they see is the 65.  In any case, one of the things that seems to have settled and made me feel more comfortable is that an awful lot that doesn’t matter... like the tam-tam going into the water bucket, or tape music versus live music, or F major versus twelve-tone writing, or whatever.  Does this style matter all that much?  First of all, history is going to take care of it very well for all of us, thank you.  We don’t have to really worry about it.  You do what you can, and you write you can with the material that you think is best suited to what you have to say, and really everything comes out very well in the long run.  The big guys are going to be there, and the bad guys will disappear.  It’s always been that way, so it will be that way, and so what else is new?  Nature has a way, and history is part of nature anyhow, in one sense.  I don’t really worry about details like that.  I don’t really worry about my style very much.  I’ve trying to develop it, and not write the same piece again, and again, as some people do.  At the same time, I don’t really want to write counting to twelve, though I have for kicks just on very, very, very few occasions.  I doubt if anybody would ever recognize that piece.  Neither do I want to write with a key signature, but I want to develop and change slowly from piece to piece, so that my late works will be different from my earlier works, and so forth.  But I don’t really worry about it.  I just try.

BD:    That’s probably the best way to look at it.

RP:    I think that’s the only sensible way to look at it, for otherwise you waste so much time worrying, and you don’t write any music.

BD:    I appreciate speaking with you today on the phone.  I’ve learned a great deal about you, and about your music.

RP:    Oh, thank you very much.  I certainly have been going on.  I see that it really is an hour.  I had no idea I’d been talking that long.  I didn’t give you much of a chance, did I?

BD:    Oh...  The best interviews are the ones where I put in a nickel and let my guest talk.  [Both have a huge laugh]  That’s the kind that I like, and that works out the best on the radio.

RP:    Oh, that’s wonderful.  I think you did fine.


© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on October 22, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.