Composer  Stephen  Paulus

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



paulus Stephen Paulus (August 24, 1949 – October 19, 2014) was a Grammy winning American composer, best known for his operas and choral music. His 1982 opera, The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of several operas he composed for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, prompted The New York Times to call him "a young man on the road to big things". His style is essentially tonal, and melodic and romantic by nature.

He received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim FoundationKennedy Center Friedheim Prize. He was commissioned by such notable organizations as the Minnesota Opera, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus, the American Composers Orchestra, the Dale Warland Singers, the Harvard Glee Club and the New York Choral Society.

Paulus was a passionate advocate for the works and careers of his colleagues. He co-founded the American Composers Forum in 1973, the largest composer service organization in the U.S., and served as the Symphony and Concert Representative on the ASCAP Board of Directors from 1990 until his death (from complications following a stroke in July 2013) in 2014.

Paulus was born in Summit, New Jersey, but his family moved to Minnesota when he was two. After graduating from Alexander Ramsey High School in Roseville, MN, he attended the University of Minnesota, where he studied with Paul Fetler and eventually earned the Ph.D. in composition in 1978. By 1983, he was named the Composer-in-Residence at the Minnesota Orchestra, and in 1988 he was also named to the same post at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, whose then-conductor Robert Shaw commissioned numerous choral works from Paulus for Shaw's eponymous vocal ensemble. After the premiere of his second opera, The Postman Always Rings Twice, he began a fruitful collaboration with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis that would result in four more operas. In 1997, he was awarded the Brock Commission from the American Choral Directors Association.

In a career which encompassed more than forty years of composition his output came to include over 450 works for chorus, orchestra, chamber ensemble, opera, solo voice, piano, guitar, organ, and band. Paulus lived in the Twin Cities area.

--  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

This interview took place in June of 1988, right at the time when the LP record was starting to give way to the CD, and cassettes were also a significant part of the scene.  This is important to remember because when we speak about recordings, the composer had great concerns for the future of some of his works which had already been issued.

paulus Bruce Duffie:   First of all, tell me about the joys and sorrows of being a rather tonal composer as we head towards the end of the twentieth century.

Stephen Paulus:   [Repeats softly as he thinks]  The joys and sorrows of being a tonal composer...

BD:   [Interrupting his thought]  Do you consider yourself a tonal composer?

SP:   Yes, basically, but I never think about it in terms of whether that is anything to do with the joys and sorrows of being a composer.  As a matter of fact, I don’t think it has anything to do with it.  I think more of simply the joys and sorrows of anyone being a composer.  There are certain common things that any composer has difficulty with, such as getting enough performances, getting good performances of your work, and the joys are when those things happen.

BD:   Then, let’s talk about just simply being a composer.  Does this point in time make a difference to you?  You’re stuck with the point in time, but is it more difficult, less difficult, more frustrating, more available?

SP:   Do you mean for getting performances, or what?

BD:   Performances, then recordings, and transmissions.  I would think that it would be a five or six-edged sword.

SP:   Actually, the field has really opened up.  There are a lot more opportunities available for composers today, and certain things are easier than others.  There are many more people underwriting performances, and giving commissions and grants.  I was just talking earlier with someone today, and saying that forty years ago composers didn’t apply for grants for pieces.  Many more people are supporting contemporary music today.  The toughest channel of all of this is that the performances have vastly improved in terms of numbers of people interested.  Quality still has a way to go, which is influenced by several factors, and recordings have a long way to go.  There simply aren’t enough recordings of the good American works that are being written.  That’s the last frontier, except for the Star Trek of composers.  [Both laugh]  It seems that we’ve had quite a few commissions, and we’ve got a lot of people performing works.  We’ve even got second and third performances of pieces, not just premieres, and some publications.  I’m sure there are plenty of composers who don’t feel their works are paid enough attention to by publishers of serious music or performing groups, but it’s coming along.  The recording area is lagging behind, and I don’t know what will change that, except maybe just the passage of time.

BD:   You’re getting on toward forty.  How has this changed in the time you’ve actually been in the business?  Did it start out in one direction, and then change as you were getting into it?

SP:   When I started seriously composing, I was about twenty-three.  That’s when I date things, from when I started doing this seriously.  In the past fifteen years, it’s become a lot more possible to realize certain ideas.  This includes the idea of interesting all kinds of different people in commissioning something
whether it’s a corporation that wants some piece for the dedication of a new building, or private patron that’s interested in having a piece to commemorate a wedding anniversary, or an ensemble that just wants to say they have a new work for their concert in September.  That seems to have changed a lot, and with some of the traveling I’ve been doing, I see that there are a lot more composers out there than we ever realized, or at least that I ever realized.

BD:   Let’s take both of these problems individually.  You say it’s changing, so how has it changed?

SP:   There are more people doing it!

BD:   Are there too many people doing it?

SP:   To many people commissioning?

BD:   No, I mean, too many people writing.


SP:   I don’t know about that.  Some people would say yes, but I think if a foundation, or a corporation, or private party commissions a piece in, say, South Dakota, and they commission a local composer, it’s probably someone who has yet to be established.  You might ask why they didn’t commission an established person or someone recognized, but these people need even more recognition.  I don’t think that works against anything.  It actually makes people aware of the fact that there are composers in their midst who are writing, and who may or may not be undiscovered talents.  It also makes the path easier for others of us who are brought in.  If I’m brought to South Dakota, or Minnesota, the audiences are more informed if they’ve been doing this, and more receptive to the idea because they had a new work last year.  They’re already used to composers, and it also helps to destroy some of the Nineteenth Century Romantic notions about composers.  We’re basically just people working a job that just happens to be writing music, and many of us are quite practical.

paulus BD:   Do you consider composing a job?

SP:   Sure!

BD:   Is it something you do nine to five, and then go home?

SP:   No, but that would be ideal.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???  You’d want to compose from nine to five, and then go home and play tennis, or something?

SP:   [Smiles]  Well, I would like to make it a little more contained than it is.  I generally work in the morning from eight or eight-thirty until Noon.  Then I go on a three-mile walk, and have lunch.  In the afternoon I work again, or attend to some of the business stuff that is related... someone wants a tape or something, so I make a tape dub, or get to my answerphone calls, or write a letter to someone who needs an answer.  Often times I work in the evening, and I think well-rounded people don’t work all the time.  I’ve been doing that kind of thing, working fairly long hours for quite a while, and I’d like to contain it a little more.

BD:   Is this because the commissions are piling up?

SP:   Yes, sort of, and I take on so many that I get into a bit of a bind.  I take on projects, and one of the things that keeps me going, and makes me excited, is that with each new project there’s a different group of people I work with.  They have a different set of ideas of what they want, and they have different experiences.  In most cases, they’ve been pleasant ones for me, and I’m excited there’s usually something different about the performance.  One group is commissioning a choral piece, and they’re going to do it for some gala concert, and you think the next group is commissioning a choral piece and they’re going to take it on a tour to Yugoslavia.  So, with a first performance there you can go to it, and that’s exciting.  Those kinds of things can fire me up as an artist, plus the individual challenges of writing a particular piece that’s suited to that group, but which also will work in a larger context with others.  You don’t want to write a piece that useable by the XYZ Ensemble, but no one else in world can play it.

BD:   When you receive a commission, how do you decide if you’ll accept it, or postpone it, or decline it?

SP:   One consideration is the time factor.  There has to be enough, and I have to have a slot of time in which to work.  Then another factor is that it has to be something that I’m really interested in doing.  When you’re in the earlier part of your career, you can’t afford to be choosy, especially if what you do is write music.  Someone’s they
re willing to pay for a piece, and you have to pay the rent while you do a few things that you might have re-considered another time.  Part any composer’s long-term goal is to get to the point where you have enough offers, or commissions, that you can choose.  When you’re interested in writing a song cycle, and you happen to have a commission for that, or if you’re interested in writing an orchestral piece, and you have an opportunity for that.  I’m also affected by the excellence of the group.  If it’s a really great group, that’s more convincing.  It helps me to get fired up about the commission and the particular project.

BD:   If you have a great group, do you write more difficult music?

SP:   [Thinks a moment]  Sometimes you can put more challenging things into a piece without compromising your style
if you have a group you know can handle it.  For instance, if a community orchestra commissioned a piece, being practical I’d probably write something not as difficult for them as I would if I had professional musicians to work with, such as the Minnesota Orchestra or the Atlanta Symphony.  In fact, I wrote a piece for harp and chamber orchestra some time ago, and the harpist that commissioned it said, I want this to be something I can play tour when I go into a town and work the high school.  So, it had to be high school musicians who could handle that.

BD:   Was this more of a challenge to write your ideas to their technical abilities?

SP:   It was about the same.  I took into account that violinists in a high school couldn’t do the same kinds of things as you get from the Atlanta Symphony.  So, it was an interesting challenge because it was something I wanted to do, and I liked it.

paulus BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?

SP:   Yes!  I have had some very good performance and, like any composer, some mediocre ones, and a few rare cases of some less-than-adequate, shall we say.  That can be a frustrating thing, because unless you’re conducting your own works, that’s out of your control.  If someone decides to do the work, and they have the score and parts where they can perform it, there’s nothing you can do about it.

BD:   If you’re there, do you stand behind the conductor and say,
Do this, do that, and scream aloud, or do you just let the conductor get on with his work?

SP:   I’m not a screamer, but in my own nice way I point out things that could be corrected.  You’ve got to realize that doing something like that is a relative thing.  There are a lot of factors that can influence it, but if they’re really missing the boat, and you arrive and it’s the final rehearsal, what can you do?  You might be able to say,
It goes twice as fast, and so they bring it up two notches on the metronomic scale.  Then, you’re closer by ten miles to the desired goal, but it really should be fifty.  On the other hand, with opera theater scene, I had a chance to be involved with lots of rehearsals.  I had talks with the librettist, the stage director, the conductor, and worked with the singers.  I was pretty intimately involved in the whole process, so there was no excuse for it not to go well.  We had first-rate people involved, and it wasn’t a case of giving them the score, and they put together, and I showed up for the opening night.  I was there, usually, for two to three weeks at a stretch, and got to watch everything as it developed.  That’s why we had such good performances.

BD:   Did you find that you were putting your hand in a lot, or just nudging it occasionally?

SP:   Nudging occasionally.  I like to trust the intuitive nature of the performers who are also involved in a creative art.  They’re recreating, or taking what I’ve written down, and rendering it, and even at the risk of maybe not having it quite exactly what I wanted, I like to let them be.  Sometimes I’ve said,
Look, I appreciate what you’re doing, but it does go at this tempo, and this is why.  Sometimes I’ve been convinced by them that their idea really works, and it’s changed my conception.  That’s why I enjoy it, because many of the performers have some very good ideas.

BD:   So, there are times then when they find things in your score you didn’t know you’d hidden there?

SP:   Yes, to a certain extent.  Conductors, too.  I work with some very good conductors, and they’ll point out things that I may be doing subconsciously, but didn’t really think that much about.  They say,
“That’s why I’m doing this at a slightly different tempo.  What do you think of that? and I’ll say, “That’s a good idea.  I didn’t realize that.

BD:   How much interpretative space do you leave in the score?

SP:   Actually, I have quite a bit of detail.  Most of the details are there.  I’ve got tempo markings, articulation, and dynamics, and it’s pretty straight forward.  But, even with all the symbols you put on a page, there still is some interpretative leeway.  You can’t be that precise that you dictate everything, unless you have a generator or computer, and then why have a human conductor?

BD:   Is there really only one way a piece can go?

SP:   I don’t think so.  That’s part of what’s interesting about going to subsequent performances.  You do find conductors who take some liberties here and there, and it’s just different.  It is better, or worse, or sometimes just different.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s come around to the recordings.   There are just a few, so have you been pleased with those?

SP:   Yes, and
few is the operative word.  [Note that subsequent to this conversation from 1988, several more recordings have been made, some of which are pictured on this webpage.]  There is the Symphony in Three Movements which Neville Marriner did, and I’m pleased with that.

paulus BD:   Is this something special, because it is a great orchestra and a great conductor doing your work, and not just an ordinary orchestra on an unknown label?

SP:   Yes, it’s very special because of all those things, and the fact I did have several opportunities, as composer-in-residence for the Minnesota Orchestra for three years, to work with Neville Marriner.  He got to know my works.  He did three of them, and so there is a sense of collaboration there.  It feels like a special collaboration, and it resulted in a good recording that they played very well.

BD:   What are the other recordings?

SP:   I have a performance of a Christmas cantata, So Hallow’d is the Time, on the Pro Arte label, which is performed by the Plymouth Music Series of Minneapolis, conducted by Philip Brunelle.  Unfortunately, this particular piece was among the last LPs that they issued.  It’s also on cassette tape, but it’s a dwindling supply.  It’s like a cul-de-sac recording, because I doubt they will reissue it on CD format.

BD:   [Somewhat distressed]  Why???

SP:   I’m not sure.  It’s just that I don’t think they’re that big on contemporary music.  This was just something they were doing with Brunelle as part of a series of things, and that’s that.

BD:   How long a piece is it?

SP:   It’s about thirty-two or thirty-three minutes, for chorus, orchestra, and soloists.  It’s not a large orchestra, maybe thirty-five players and organ.

BD:   [Thinking out loud]  I’m trying to remember that Libby Larsen piece, which is an Advent cantata [In a Winter Garden], and runs about forty or forty-two minutes.

SP:   That was part of the same series, and has been recorded, but it’s probably suffering the same fate.

BD:   [Trying to be helpful]  Perhaps if the two together don’t run more than seventy five minutes or so, they could be put onto one CD.

SP:   Now there’s an idea!  [Both laugh]  I don’t think we’d interest Pro Arte in it.  They’re just not interested in contemporary music.  In spite of this effort, I don’t know why they did this.  It doesn’t seem like their thing.  But one Christmas CD is a great idea.  I’ll talk to them when I get back home.

BD:   Thinking from a purely business standpoint, would it be worth it to trim six or eight minutes from the two of them?  Perhaps if each of you would take a few little tucks in the piece to get it down to the right time to put them onto a CD?

SP:   I see my piece as complete, so I don’t see it possible to take a few tucks.  You’d have to lop off a movement or two, and then that would be self-defeating.  It’s not what I would want accomplish.  If someone made a commitment do the piece, they should do the entire piece.  I’m not being obnoxious about it, it’s just that it doesn’t really represent the work if we’ve excerpted parts of it so we can squeeze it on.

BD:   This is the kind of thing that a businessman would immediately say, and I just wonder how the artist would respond.

SP:   In a typically artistic manner!  Do the whole thing or forget it!  Besides, this work has been performed several times, and so it is cast in the mound the way it is now.  The only way I could see this type of suggestion working if you were, say, as part of a CD that says ‘excerpts from contemporary works’, and you had maybe three or four, and you just did three movements from mine
which has tenand three movements from Composer X, and three from Composer Y, so the people would get a holiday sampler.  Then, anyone would think that’s a valuable recording because they’re not getting all of anything, but they’re getting bits and pieces.  Maybe a package of Oh! Happy Christmas Music with all upbeat things in 3/4, or 6/8, or 3/8, to be played only at that happy time of year.  Then people would think, This is a perfect recording for me!  But I doubt any composer would feel that’s ideal.

paulus BD:   If someone comes to you and says I want to commission you to write a happy piece,” would you accept it?

SP:   I would wonder about their goals if that were one of the parameters.  I’ve never had anyone suggest that.  I have had people suggest that they want to commission something that was celebratory or upbeat
like an overture for an opening ceremony of a hall.

BD:   An occasional piece?

SP:   An occasional piece, yes because in that regard, I’d accept it.  You can write something that way.  The person, if they’re commissioning a piece, has the right to say he wants something celebratory.  They don’t want to commission an elegy for dedicatory concert piece, or if they want to write a tribute to someone who’s still living, they don’t want a dirge.  That’s misplaced.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What is the purpose of music in society?

SP:   [Thinks a moment]  To provide food for thought, and to entertain would probably be two main purposes.  It can also stimulate our thinking, and provide a respite from some of the other mundane rigors of daily living.

BD:   You bring up the word
entertainment.  Where’s the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Robert Beaser, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.]

SP:   I’m not really sure on that.  You can get into the whole issue of why do we have this at all!  It’s certainly not something we absolutely need, although some people would say yes, we do.  But do people really need symphonies?  Do they need opera companies performing works today?  A friend of mine, a composer, put it rather succinctly when we were applying for a grant at a composers’ forum.  He said that he viewed there were three requirements in a life.  Basically, one was food, and you had to have shelter.  The third aspect was meaning, and music and the arts provided meaning.  I’d probably adhere to that philosophy.  Hearing a great workor even a not-so-great workperformed well provides meaning.  Without sounding too profound or pedantic about it, music provides some of my colleagues with a certain sense of meaning and purpose in life.  It gives us a reason to exist, and do something besides existing from day to day.

BD:   Now you say
great and not-so-great.  What are some of the things that contribute to making a piece of music great?

SP:   With acceptance over a period of time by a large number of people, or a certain hard-core group of people, a piece generally becomes acclaimed as great.  The factors are different, sometimes as different as every work, or as every composer.  It’s hard to say what they are.  If it were easy to answer that, we’d have all sorts of composers writing nothing but great works, each turning out the next work in hopes that it’s better than the last, or that the piece is going to endure for a while.

BD:   Do you think your music is great?

SP:   I have no idea.

BD:   Who should be the judge of that
the performers, the public, history, what?

SP:   I don’t know who should be the judge, but over the fairly short span of time in which I’ve been working, I’ve decided that the people whose opinions I trust the most, for the most part, are probably the performers.  Also, to some extent, the audience, although that can vary greatly because a lot of our audiences have been minimally exposed to large sections of contemporary music.  I know some of my colleagues would argue that some of the performers have a narrow vision, and are used to what they study in school.  They play only Brahms and Beethoven, with no background in contemporary music.  But I found a lot of the performers, even the orchestral ones, have seen a lot of music, and many of the better ones have an intuitive sense about what they like and don’t like.  They’re very quick to make judgments
sometimes too quicklybut they’ll be honest with you and say, I really didn’t like your piece when, at first rehearsal we pulled it out and started playing it.  But throughout the week it’s grown on me.  They’ll be honest and direct that way.  Audience members, even if they have no music knowledge, will at least tell you what they liked and didn’t like.  It’s dangerous to be influenced by that because you have to do what you’re doing to do, and we can have great music in all styles.  There is no one particular style that’s golden.  There are some things that are golden at one time or another, that’s for sure, and may be more popular than other pieces of music at certain times.  But one thing I’ve tried to do when I give talks to audiences, is to influence them in thinking to give everything a chance.  Then maybe I will talk about some of the tools they can use for listening, but I try to get them to realize that there are many, many kinds of musical styles, and very legitimate ones that are totally at opposite ends of the spectrum.  As long as a style is done well and with conviction, that composer has something to say.  As to composers, I would probably say that we’d be least influenced by critics.

BD:   I assume that there are a few critics that you would respect?

SP:   There are several that I respect, but I would just say I’d be least influenced by critics, period.  I’m not trying to be pejorative or anything, but there are so many instances where critics have been wrong.  Sometimes they’ve been right, too, but I can’t think of a composer who would change a piece because of what a critic had said, or say,
I should have made that section shorter because the critic didn’t like it.  A critic’s main function is to give some publicity to a performance, because they fill up some space in the paper.  They write about a performance that took place, and express a single viewpoint to people who weren’t at the concert, so that they know that went on.  Or, to people who were there, they are all going to agree or disagree in large and small part with what the critic had said, anyway.  A critic’s basic function is to inform a readership of what transpired last night in the hall.

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear a piece of your music?

paulus SP:   I don’t know if there’s so much of an expectancy, as hope.  I would just hope that they are open-minded enough so that they give it a chance, to listen and form an opinion based on that.  I don’t expect them to like something or to particularly dislike it, but to be silent and listenwhich is asking a lot these days.  Very few audiences, at least in this country, are truly quiet.  There are all kinds of extraneous noises, ranging from candy wrappers and purses that sound like the vault at Fort Knox being shut, to vigorous coughing, sneezing, talking.  There are all kinds of interferences which, for a long tim
e have made attending concerts unpleasant, and I just gave up.  Oh, I forgot beepers.  That’s another thing.  I can’t remember when I’ve been to a concert and haven’t heard a beeper go off, or the little watches that go ‘beep, beep’ on every hour.

BD:   People are starting to leave beepers with the ushers.  There’s a big sign here in Chicago that says,
Leave your beepers!  Tell us where you are sitting if you’re expecting an emergency call.  But I guess there is nothing one can do about the hourly beeps from wristwatches.

SP:   They should hold seminars to show people how to turn that thing off!  Maybe during Intermission we could get a grant to instruct all the people that have watches that do it.

BD:   I have a friend who is a lyric tenor named David Gordon.  Do you know him?

SP:   I know the name, yes.

BD:   He is a wonderful tenor, and he told me about one opera he was in, that right at the hour it was always a quiet section, and because he was always downstage he could hear ‘beep, beep’ all over the house.  It happened every time they came to that part of the opera, exactly.  [Both laugh]  

SP:   He should conduct the beeps!

BD:   Why don’t you write a piece incorporating the beeps?

SP:   That’s something Eric Stokes might do before I would.  [Much laughter]

BD:   If someone comes up to you and says they want that, would you actually refer them to Eric Stokes, or some other composer?

SP:   Sure!  I’m a great believer in composers helping composers, and I’ve been quite fortunate in having a substantial number of performances over the last few years where I meet enough people.  So, I’m always on the look-out for opportunities for other composers I know.  Part of that stems from my work from Minnesota Orchestra residency program, similar to where I’ll be in Atlanta.  It’s part of my job to find works I can refer to the Music Director.  This goes back to one of your first questions.  There are so many ensembles and organizations that are interested in performing new works now, that it’s an exciting time to live.  It’s also a challenge to find some of these opportunities for composers.  I tend to be what you call
overtly optimistic, even though I would say we have a long way to go in terms of numbers of opportunities.  We need more, but also must increase the quality of those opportunities.  We should be continually upgrading, and getting better performers by training performers better, and getting even higher quality performances by getting more rehearsals for some of these works.  It’s a major reason why a lot of contemporary pieces aren’t done.  There’s not enough rehearsal time for many of them, unless you’re a small ensemble and can budget ten rehearsals to work on the piece every time.

BD:   And yet there’ll be plenty of time for rehearsing a Beethoven Ninth.

SP:   Oh, they can find time for that, yes!  [Both laugh]  But I do think there are a lot of opportunities, and it’s exciting for me.  If you’ve got several things going, why not work on trying to line up other composers with other conductors and performers.  When I meet a conductor, or a director of an ensemble, and find out some of their tastes and the kinds of music they like, I’d say,
There’s a good piece by a friend of mine living in Butte, or Dubuque, or Santa Barbara, or wherever, and you might want to take a look at it.  I get a particular joy in putting them together, and calling up this composer and saying, Send a tape to so and so.  I know others like that, too.  It’s not all self-serving, and dog-eat-dog out there.  There’s plenty of altruism.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You’re composer-in-residence now in Atlanta?

SP:   Starting September 1st, I’ll be composer-in-residence for two years with the Atlanta Symphony.

BD:   Are you expecting that to be similar to what you did in Minnesota?

SP:   It’s the same kind of concept.  It’s under the ‘Meet the Composer’ program, and it should be similar, although in the Minnesota situation I shared the post with Libby Larsen.  It was great, but it was more complicated because it involved two composers meeting, and our schedules working with one conductor, and all the different decisions and coordinating all of it.  In this case in Atlanta, there’ll just be the music director, Yoel Levi, and myself.  The fewer people involved in the decision-making process, the better.  In Minnesota, it’s more than just the music director and the composer-in-residence.  There are other people involved with making programming decisions in any major orchestra, and some of that won’t change in Atlanta, but maybe some things will be different.

BD:   Is this composer-in-residence program a good thing?

SP:   I think so, although I have to say that’s a qualified yes.  I know criticisms from colleagues who have said, first of all, there are not enough things being programmed, and I think they’re correct.  We did not get enough music to satisfy our goals at Minnesota, but we got some.  I would emphasize that, and tend to be optimistic that some is better than none.  Next year we get some, plus X or Y or Z.  I’m sensitive to those criticisms, but I would like to think that it’s good.  First of all
and this is not to be under-estimatedwith a composer on the staff, there are opportunities that come about that would never arise if you didn’t have a composer walking around in the halls.  Let me give me a specific example.  The Minnesota Orchestra plays a 4th July concert out in front of the capital steps at St. Paul, and it’s built around a festival with food booths, and all sorts of stuff.  100,000 people fill the Mallwhich is not an insubstantial crowd.  The President of the Minnesota Orchestra, Richard Isaac, said to us, “Why can’t we put a movement of something on one of those concerts?  We said that was fine, so we did actually play two movements of a piece by Eric Stokes.  The concert was played in front of this group of 100,00 and was broadcast live over Minnesota public radio.  We did not do all of the work so, in that respect, it was less than satisfactory, but we did two movementswhich is better than nothingand it reminded people that yes, there are composers living and working today.  Here’s one right in our midst, a composer living in Minneapolis, and the Minnesota Orchestra is playing his work.  I considered that a positive step, and I don’t think it would have come about if we hadn’t been in a meeting where Richard Isaac asked if we could we do a piece.  Composers are scarceout of sight, out of mind.  Why should we think of them?  Here is another example...  The Chicago Symphony was touring, doing a concert in Minnesota a year or a year and a half ago, and at the Artistic Staff meetingwhich is a group of people involved in the artistic operations of the orchestratwo programs were presented that the Chicago Symphony had offered.  One included Mahler Five, and something elsean all traditional programand the other included the Corigliano Clarinet Concerto.  Well, you can bet which program Libby and I lobbied for!

BD:   Sure!

SP:   And it took some lobbying, not because of any like or dislike of John Corigliano’s work, but just because that Mahler Five would sell.  We pointed out that Edo de Waart was going to do Mahler Five with our own orchestra the following season, so we didn’t need two of them
even if it was the Chicago Symphony.  So Program Two was selected finally, and John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto was played in Minneapolis.  It was a stunning success, and the Orchestra even got letters from people saying what a wonderful work it was, and they were so glad it was programmed, and we should have more of this.  So, not only did we succeed, but we didn’t have to apologize for having a contemporary work on, and tell the Staff there were forty hatemail pieces.  It was a success from all points, and we vindicated.  There are lots of examples like that, and if we were not in the meeting, something else would have been programmed.

[At this point I needed to make a technical adjustment, and while we were stopped we mentioned several composers, including Hugo Weisgall, Dominic Argento, and Paul Fetler, who were associated with either Minnesota, or the Lyric Opera of Chicago Young Composers Program.]

BD:   Is Minnesota a Mecca for composers?

SP:   I don’t know if it’s a Mecca, but we do have a lot of composers there.  I would say
without anybody being pompous about itcredit, or you could say part of the blame, goes to the Minnesota Composers Forum [later re-named the American Composers Forum], which has been around now for fifteen years.  It has slogged away, and perpetrated a lot of good things.

BD:   [Laughs]  
Perpetrated... I like that!

SP:   That’s how some people would look at it.

paulus American Composers Forum, was organized in 1973 as a group of students at the University of Minnesota, led by co-founders Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus, for the purpose of creating performance opportunities outside the academic setting. They incorporated in 1975 as the Minnesota Composers Forum and focused their early efforts on a series of concerts for the benefit of local members. One Master Class and concert in that first year included the participation of Ernst Krenek. In the early 1980s the organization expanded their services by launching the Jerome Composer Commissioning Program (1979), the McKnight Fellowships (1982) and innova® recordings (1983). One of the earliest public advocacy initiatives was the Composers Voice program with Minnesota Public Radio (1993), a series of 13 one-hour broadcasts featuring prominent national composers such as John Adams, Meredith Monk and Philip Glass among others.

In 1996 the Board of Directors adopted the current name of American Composers Forum (ACF) in recognition of its growing national reach. Eight chapters were established in major urban centers, and the 50-state commissioning program Continental Harmony was launched in 1998 as a millennium celebration in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. Among its more singular historical programming was the First Nations Composer Initiative from 2004-2010 to support the unique needs of Native American composers and performers.

ACF has a successful history of national education programming. BandQuest®, a series of music for middle school bands composed by prominent American composers, has reached an estimated 625,000 students since its inception in 1997. There are now twenty-two published works in the series ranging from Michael Colgrass, Libby Larsen, Michael Daugherty and klezmer revivalist, Hankus Netsky, to name a few. ChoralQuest® is the newest education program for middle school, with commissions from Stephen Paulus, Alice Parker, Jerod Tate, Jennifer Higdon, and Chen Yi among others.  NextNotes®, the newest program, awards promising high school students with meaningful performance and mentorship opportunities.

Over the course of four decades, ACF has nurtured the work of thousands of composers. The innova recording label has released over 600 titles, and our BandQuest® and ChoralQuest® series for middle level students has reached over half million students. New programs like ACF CONNECT offer direct connections and commissions with leading national ensembles. The organization has a rich history of granting programs, readings, salons, conferences, and residencies that support the creation of new work and connect composers to communities.

Today, ACF has over 1,000 members in all 50 states, including composers, performers, colleges, and universities. Members come from both urban and rural areas; they work in virtually every musical genre, including orchestral and chamber music, world music, opera and music theater, jazz and improvisational music, electronic and electro-acoustic music, and sound art. In addition to the tangible benefits of membership (a profile page in our composer member directory, detailed opportunities listings, legal and professional development advice, professional development workshops, seminars, and networking events), members are part of a national community of artists who share common concerns, aspirations, and goals.

--  From the ACF website  

BD:   We were talking a moment ago about getting more music.  What do you think is the balance of contemporary music, or what should it be in programs
a piece on each concert?  A piece every other concert?  Several pieces a year?  What kind of balance are you looking for?

SP:   It depends on what kinds of concerts you’re talking about, to some extent.  If we take orchestral programs, I don’t see any hard and fast rule, but I don’t see any reason why we can’t have at least one contemporary work for every orchestral concert.  Why shouldn’t we have a representation of the Twentieth Century, with its vast stylistic differences on every concert.  It’s like going back to your early piano recital, and having your Mozart, or your Beethoven, and your Chopin, or your Liszt, and even Prokofieff.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  And your Stephen Paulus?

SP:   Right, exactly!  [Laughs]  Eventually, we’re going to beat this idea that programming contemporary works drives away the audiences, which is the argument that is used most commonly with orchestral managements.  They’re correct
it does drive away a certain audience, but there’s another vast audience out there that isn’t coming to orchestral concerts at all because there’s nothing for them, or they haven’t been bred to appreciate it.

BD:   Would you rather have a piece of yours on an all-contemporary concert, or on a mixed concert?

SP:   [Resolutely]  A mixed concert.  Absolutely.  No hesitancy in that because it’s a balance.  An all-contemporary concert also works sometimes, and, of course, you take that over having nothing at all.  I remember a concert I heard a couple of years ago in London at the Almeida Theatre.  There were six contemporary works on the program, three in the first half, the interval, and three in the last half.  The last one, number six, was a world premiere, and by the time they got to number six, I couldn’t have cared less.

paulus BD:   Because you were tired?

SP:   Because it was too much of an onslaught of new things.  It’s like having a meal of all steak, or all deserts, or all hors d’oeuvres.  You are much better off balancing things out.  Most composers these days would rather have a Mozart, a Robert Schumann, and then their piece, or a balance like that.  A lot of times, some of the success for contemporary work has to do with what it’s programed with, and where it falls in the concert.  If it comes after a long dragged-out essay of something or other which is difficult to listen to, then when you have the premiere of the work people are already up in arms before you’ve even started.  It’s not fair to the composer.  There’s a real knack to good programming.

BD:   Can you, as composer-in-residence, help arrange things properly?

SP:   Yes, I think so.  When you’ve got this, and this, and this on the program, part of our job is to say,
A perfect piece would be such-and-such, and I happen to have a tape right here.  Listen to this.  Wouldn’t it be a perfect complement to the Ravel, or some other repertoire piece?

BD:   As composer-in-residence, you get thousands of scores and millions of tapes.  How do you decide?  What do you look for?

SP:   At the Minnesota Orchestra, Libby and I have had, I believe, around six or seven hundred scores, which was a real eye-opener.  I was amazed at the number of people that could send us a tape.  They’ve had a reading by a community orchestra, or a bad performance by the XYZ ensemble, and they’re looking for a full-fledged performance with three or four rehearsals and it’s really played in top-notch form.  That was sometimes a discouraging aspect of the job, to realize how many people out there are writing for orchestra, and looking for performances, and to see how few slots really are available.

BD:   So what do you look for to give this or that piece its needed push?

SP:   It depends on the situation.  If you’re really working closely with a Music Director, you’re looking for something that balances a particular program, and so there may be a time constraint.  The conductor may say we need a piece that’s no more than ten minutes.  He may also indicate a desire for a particular feeling
something upbeat, an overture or opener-type thing.  In that case, you can’t give him an elegy for strings.  He may say that he needs something that doesn’t use more than woodwinds in pairs because they’re using a reduced-size orchestra.  There can be all these little nitty-gritty practical things that are involved in this decision.  In the rare opportunity when he says, Give me a good piecefifteen, twenty minutes, a half-hour, I don’t carethen he is just looking for good, solid, exciting piece of music that communicates in its style with integrity, and will say something to the audience.  It can be any of a variety of different things, so no one style.

BD:   What general advice do you have for other composers coming along?

SP:   Actually, I could boil it down and say the most important thing for any composer is to get performances.  When I visit colleges and universities, all kinds of younger composers ask how to get their works published and recorded, and how does one get commissions.  I always say basically the same thing, which is to work on getting performances.  Then all those other things will fall into place.  It’s pointless to have your complete catalogue published if nobody knows your work.  Who cares if all your things are engraved and issued with wonderful covers?  You’re not going to get commissions by grabbing someone by the lapel and saying,
I’m a good composer, so commission me!  Recordings are even harder to get, so I basically tell composer not to work on those.  Simply work on getting performances.  When they then ask how to do that, I say to sidle up next to performers that you know and trust and respect and can work with.  If turns out to be a duo for flute and piano that teachers at the college where you’re going will play at concerts occasionally, or at the temple or church where you work as choral director, use those people and work in a practical fashion.  The history of composers is such that they have been practical human beings for a few hundred years.  Bach was writing orchestral suites when he was working at someone’s court, and writing church cantatas when he had a church job.

BD:   In the
50s and 60s had we somehow misplaced those practicalities.

SP:   Yes, I think you’re right on that, maybe somewhat because of the academic support.  Composition has always been a parasitic art.  We’re always subsidized by someone, commonly a teaching job in this day and age, or, in the last ten years or so, it’s been anything from starting your own ensemble to playing ballet or modern dance or improv classes, to writing commercial jingles to support your habit, and doing a gnarly string quartet in the later evening hours.  There’s no fooling anyone.  We’ve always been subsidized in some fashion, but I have a feeling that in the
50s and 60s we got more removed from that to some extent, and it’s taken away all the catch-up to be more practical, and not be so mundane, or dreary pedantic.  If you want to write an opera, and no one is going to commission it, and no one is performing it, that’s your business.  But you have limited claim to sit there and harp about it, that no one’s performing your works.  There are outlets if you want to have your works performed, and it’s very possible in this time-frame.

BD:   Are you also a teacher, or are you just a composer?

SP:   I’m just a composer.  People sometimes make a thing out of the fact that I don’t teach.  I’m not trying to take things away from myself, but for four years I was supported as a composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra.  This past season, 1987-88, I’ve existed on commissions only, and then starting in ’88, for at least two years, I’ll be composer-in-residence for Atlanta.  So, you can say for six out of seven years I’ve had my own form of a teaching job.  It’s just been in the form of working for an orchestra.  I’m very excited about working with the Atlanta Symphony coming up because they’re excellent.  Also, there are other chamber groups there that I will get to know, and musicians in Atlanta, and it’s a whole new base from which to operate and get acquainted with people.

*     *     *     *     *

paulus BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about operas.  You’re here in Chicago as adviser to the composer-in-residence program for Lyric Opera.  What are some of the real differences between writing a symphony and getting it performed, and writing an opera and getting it mounted?

SP:   They’re both somewhat formidable, but it’s much harder to get an opera done.  It’s a much more expensive venture, and has more people involved who have a say in what goes on.

BD:   Do you think that opera is still a viable art form?

SP:   Oh, yes, yes!  I’m very excited about it.  I don’t have any opera projects pending at the moment, but I’m sure eventually I’ll write another one.

BD:   You’ve written three successful ones so far?

SP:   Yes, a one-act, a two-act, and a three-act.  The next one is not going to be a four-act...  [Laughs]  If I go back to a two-act, I think that’s safe.

BD:   The first one was The Village Singer?

SP:   The Village Singer, that’s the one-act.  It’s actually sixty minutes, and it’s five scenes.  It’s a story about an aging soprano soloist with a church choir, who
s let go rather unceremoniously in a harsh fashion, and dies.  [Laughs]  So, it starts out somewhat humorously and then ends up in a rather bitter-sweet fashion.  It has a fairly tragic ending, but there’s even a small bit of humor in the final scene when she gets her last lick in on the younger soloist.  That was premiered in 1979, and then, when it was done by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, they right away commissioned another one, which was The Postman Always Rings Twice, and that was done in 1982.  That’s a two-act opera.

BD:   Is that a full evening?

SP:   Yes.  Each act is about an hour long, and there is one scene in the first act which I finally cut.  Both of those operas have been performed, and The Village Singer has had maybe a dozen, or thirteen, or fourteen performances
some by professional opera companies, like Minnesota Opera, and others by college opera workshops, or community groups.  It works pretty well that way.  The Postman has been done by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Minnesota Opera, Fort Worth Opera in Texas, and Miami Opera.  St. Louis did it at the Edinburgh Festival in 1983, and upcoming performances in January and February will be in Washington, with the Washington Opera.  So that’s gotten around quite a bit.  Those have all been professional companies.  The last one is The Woodlanders, which is a three-act opera, so it is longer.  It has only been premiered by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, but may have subsequent performances.  The Village Singer, which was done at a critics’ conference in St. Louis at the time, received a whole batch of wonderful reviews, but went three years before there was a second performance.  I was absolutely dumbfounded by that.  I wondered what happens to the ones that bomb?  [Both laugh]  They must go decades before someone tries them again!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re writing, are you in control of the pencil, or is that pencil in control of you?

SP:   No, I’m in control of the pencil.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  All the time?

SP:   I’m not sure what exactly you’re getting at, unless you’re asking if inspiration takes over and creates for you.  That question is a good one, but more complicated.  Most of composition is the act of creating.  I referred to it earlier as being a job, and it’s mostly perspiration.  But inspiration is a small part of it.  There are moments when you’re inspired, but it’s something you do every day.  We don’t run around yelling
Eureka, but I write every day.  Sometimes there is an element of the pencil taking over once a piece is well thought out.  I usually do a fair amount of planning ahead, so I always know where I’m going.  But there are times when you start to get feverish, and you know that you have to get from Point A to Point B, and you’ve resolved it already in your mind as to how to do that.  Then, it’s simply a matter of getting all the notes down, and that’s tedious sometimes.  I think it was Nabokov who said, “The worst part of writing a novel was actually writing it down, typing it all.  That can also be said of composers sometimes.  It’s a laborious process to just simply sit there and write it out.

BD:   Every note and every little dot has its own second of your time?

SP:   [Nods, indicating that it’s true]

BD:   Is every little note important and precious to you?


SP:   I’m a fairly economical composer, so I wouldn’t say every note is precious, but if I put it down on the page, there’s a reason for it being there, and it’s all carefully thought out.  I don’t think you’d find excess doublings in my music.  I don’t fill up the page just because I want to see all the flutes and woodwinds noodling away just to make a big sound.  So, everything is fairly economical.  That’s the best word.

BD:   Is composing fun?

SP:   Yes, I think it’s great.  It’s a job, but it’s what I enjoy doing more than anything else.  I’d rather be doing this than selling shoes or used cars.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are you also a performer?  Did you start out as a pianist, or fiddle player?

SP:   I started as a pianist, and fortunately I don’t have to deal with that any more.  I gave one piano recital.  I have a tape of it, which I’ll listen to one day... unless it’s already self-destructed.  [Laughs]  I haven’t checked it in the last eighteen years...  I actually would like to do some performing again, but I haven’t made the time for it.  It’s a healthy thing for composers to be involved in performance.  One thing I’m starting to get involved in a little bit is conducting, which I also said I wouldn’t have anything to do with.  [More laughter]  A lot of composers are fairly shy, and enjoy handing over the work to the conductor who’s the flamboyant-type, that can make the music.  Fortunately, you can hide in the background, listen to things and make a few comments, then sit down and enjoy it.  But I’m conducting two works for chamber orchestra at the Sun River Music Festival in Oregon, and the manager there simply asked me to do it.  This has come up a few times, and I’ve declined, but this fellow wouldn’t accept,
“No,” so they’re going to get the composer/conductor whether they like it or not.  I probably will know the pieces better than anyone, so at least we’re a leg-up in that way.

BD:   Thank you for spending the time with me today.  I appreciate it.

SP:   Thank you, Bruce.  This has been enjoyable, and I sure appreciate your taking the time to talk with me and ask some questions.



© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on June 10, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1994, 1998, and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, 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.

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.