Composer  Tobias  Picker

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Tobias Picker (b. New York City, July 18, 1954), called “our finest composer for the lyric stage” by The Wall Street Journal, is a composer of numerous works in every genre drawing performances by the world’s leading musicians, orchestras and opera houses. Picker began composing at the age of eight and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, The Juilliard School and Princeton University where his principal teachers were Charles Wuorinen, Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt. His first commissions occurred while still in his late teens and he quickly became established as one of America’s most sought-after young composers.

picker By the age of thirty, Picker was the recipient of numerous awards and honors including the Bearns Prize (Columbia University), a Charles Ives Scholarship, and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. He received the prestigious Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1992 and was elected to lifetime membership in the Academy in 2012. Picker served as the first composer-in-residence of the Houston Symphony from 1985-90, and has served as composer-in-residence for such major international festivals as the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Pacific Music Festival. From 2010-2015, Picker served as Artistic Director of Opera San Antonio. In 2016, Picker was appointed Artistic Director of Tulsa Opera.

The Santa Fe Opera gave the world premiere of Picker’s internationally acclaimed first opera Emmeline in 1996. [CD cover shown at left]  It was subsequently broadcast nationally on the PBS “Great Performances” series. The opera played to sold-out houses and international critical acclaim, and the opera’s premiere at New York City Opera was hailed by The New York Times as one of the ten most significant musical events of 1998. Opera Theatre of St. Louis mounted a major new production in June 2015, which garnered universal acclaim as “one of the best operas written in the past 25 years (The Wall Street Journal).

Picker’s second opera, based on Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Opera in a production starring Gerald Finley, established Picker as a composer whose appeal crosses all boundaries of age. Fantastic Mr. Fox recently completed a sold-out, three-year run at London’s Opera Holland Park, and the English Touring Opera toured the work extensively in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. OPERA San Antonio presented a new production of Fantastic Mr. Fox, created especially for the inaugural season of the Tobin Center, in September 2014. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project released the premiere recording of Fantastic Mr. Fox in its original orchestration and featuring Opera San Antonio’s acclaimed cast.

A consortium of The Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, and Opéra de Montréal commissioned Picker’s third opera, Thérèse Raquin, which was staged by Francesca Zambello. A reduced version of Thérèse Raquin was commissioned by Opera Theatre Europe and given its London premiere at Covent Garden ROH2. The reduced version has since received productions with Dicapo Opera Theatre, Long Beach Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Boston University Opera Institute, and Microscopic Opera.

The Metropolitan Opera commissioned Picker’s fourth opera, An American Tragedy, based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser (which also inspired the film A Place in the Sun). The world premiere of the opera took place at the Met in December 2005, featuring Patricia Racette, Nathan Gunn, Susan Graham, and Dolora Zajick in principal roles. The production was directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by James Conlon. The Glimmerglass Festival gave the premiere of the revised version of An American Tragedy to wide acclaim in 2014.

Picker’s fifth opera, Dolores Claiborne, based on the Stephen King novel, starred Patricia Racette and Elizabeth Futral at its world premiere presented by San Francisco Opera in September 2013. Dolores Claiborne was hailed as “a triumph” (Opera News), “the best of his five operas” (The Los Angeles Times), “a brilliant musical incarnation” (The Huffington Post) and “an unflinching addition to the repertoire” (San Francisco Chronicle).
Picker’s symphonic music, including his famous tone poem Old and Lost Rivers, composed while he was composer-in-residence at the Houston Symphony, has been commissioned and performed by major orchestras around the world such as the BBC Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic, L’Orchestre de Paris, Munich Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Vienna RSO, and Zurich Tonhalle. His second piano concerto, Keys to the City (commissioned by the City of New York on the occasion of the centenary of the Brooklyn Bridge) is a perennial favorite, called “a vivid musical portrait of New York” by The New York Times and recorded by Jeremy Denk on Chandos [CD back-insert shown at right], along with his Cello Concerto and the orchestral work And Suddenly It’s Evening.

The Encantadas (for actor and orchestra) features texts drawn from Herman Melville’s poetic descriptions of the Galapagos Islands and was recorded by the Houston Symphony with Sir John Gielgud; it has been performed throughout the world in seven languages. In addition to his five operas, Picker’s catalogue includes four symphonies, four piano concertos, concertos for violin, viola, cello and oboe, song cycles, string quartets, and chamber music. His ballet Awakenings, based on the themes and case studies in the novel of the same name by neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, was commissioned by the Rambert Dance Company, which toured the work throughout the UK in 2011, performing it 80 times.

His extensive discography has been recorded on such labels as Nonesuch, Sony Classics, Virgin Classics, Chandos, Ondine, and Albany Records. Most recently, Wergo and Tzadik have devoted complete albums to Picker’s chamber music spanning the years 1976 to 2011, including the album Invisible Lilacs released by Tzadik in March 2014.

Picker’s first four operas received new productions in the 2014-2015 season at The Glimmerglass Festival (An American Tragedy), Opera San Antonio (Fantastic Mr. Fox), Opera Theatre of St. Louis (Emmeline), Chicago Opera Theater and Long Beach Opera (Thérèse Raquin). Called “seductive yet enigmatic” by The Washington Post, Picker’s large-scale orchestral work Opera Without Words received its world premiere with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2016, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. In 2017, the New York City opera premiered the chamber version of Dolores Claiborne, and the National Symphony Orchestra celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Old and Lost Rivers with performances of the work at the Kennedy Center and on tour in Moscow and St. Petersburg at the Mstislav Rostropovich Festival. In 2018, Picker led the Signature Symphony in a performance of arias from his operas, including "The Ghost Aria" and "The Seine Moves Like a Melody" from Thérèse Raquin and "The Letter Aria" and "Love Duet" from Emmeline. which have subsequently been made available as stand-alone concert works for voice(s) and orchestra.

Tobias Picker’s music is published exclusively worldwide by Schott Helicon Music Corporation.

==  Biography from the website of Schott Music  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In March of 1994, Tobias Picker was in Chicago for performances with the Chicago Symphony of his Old and Lost Rivers, led by Christoph Eschenbach.  The day before the first performance, the composer was gracious enough to allow me to visit him at his hotel for an interview.  At times the conversation ranged from the humorous to the incredibly deep, but through it all, Picker was thoughtful and thorough in his responses to my questions.

Portions of the chat were aired on WNIB, Classical 97, to celebrate his 40th and 45th birthdays, and now, nearly 30 years later (in mid-2023), I am pleased present the entire encounter . . . . .

Bruce Duffie
:   I will be doing a program to celebrate your upcoming 40th birthday.  Do you have any thoughts on being four-oh?

Tobias Picker:   I’m looking forward to it, actually.  I hated turning 39, but I’m where I want to be at the moment, at 40, and I feel comfortable with where I am and who I am.  Maybe turning 40 has something to do with that.

BD:   Does it give you a sense of security in your work?

Picker:   Maybe, or just a sense of having some tiny little place in the big, gigantic scheme of things.  You never know if you’re ever going to find your own place, and I feel very lucky, at almost 40, to feel as though I have whatever that means.

BD:   When you say the
gigantic scheme of things, do you mean the gigantic scheme of music, or the gigantic scheme of life?

Picker:   I meant it to be taken either way, but I also meant the gigantic scheme of the solar system, and geological time.

BD:   Where does concert music fit into the gigantic scheme of solar time?

Picker:   Concert music?

BD:   I assume that’s the label we can put on the music that we’re both interested in.

Picker:   Concert music is one of the most extraordinary inventions of the geologically current inhabitants of the cosmic space we live in.  It gives us a sense of connection with that something which is larger than ourselves, and greater and beyond true understanding.  It gives us a glimpse into something unknowable, but almost suggested.

BD:   Are you talking about what is in your heart, or what is in the cosmos?

Picker:   No, I’m not talking about what’s in your heart.  My heart or your heart is just a meter for something much bigger than it perceives.  It’s a perception and suggestion perhaps of something through the heart and the mind of a vastness and an expanse in time and space that’s beyond our current ken.  But I do think concert music, small though it may loom in that framework, does have a place in it because, as Goethe said, there’s a Godliness about music and sorrow, and a double joy, a simultaneous joy of music and love, which Goethe talks about, and which I try to depict in my Second Symphony in my honest way.  They say that concert music is very threatened in the late 20th century by the economic climate, and the Western tradition of concert music is threatened by multiculturalism and cultural diversity.  But when you hear an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony
if there is one like the Chicago Symphonyplay your own music, or the music of the masters, it gives you some hope that maybe it will survive.

BD:   Should this concert music that we’re talking about be for everyone on the planet?

Picker:   Nothing is for everyone.  There are different musics for different cultures.  We may not live to see it, but I imagine there may come a time when it’s all merged into one homogenized thing.  There may be composers making an effort to do that now, but I don’t believe there are.  Different cultures in different parts of the world have different musical traditions.  We were speaking of the Western European musical tradition, which was carried forth to this continent, but no, I don’t think it’s for everyone on the planet.  Abe Lincoln knew what he was talking about when he said that you can fool some of the people some of the time, et cetera, et cetera.  Not that anybody is fooling anyone, but you can change it around to say that you can gratify some of the people all the time and all of them some of the time, but not all of them all the time.  It shouldn’t be expected.  It’s always nice to see someone who grew up on Jimi Hendrix, and Beatles, and Stones, and Led Zeppelin suddenly discover the joys of Stravinsky, but I’m afraid I’m not a proselytizer as far as trying to get the entire human race to the box office window.

BD:   Should the composer be at all concerned with the economic issues?

Picker:   The composer has no choice but to be concerned with the economic issues if he’s functioning in this economic climate.  If he has to pay his bills, sure, he should be concerned.  What can we do?  I guess education is the key.

BD:   Are you also teaching music as well as composing?

Picker:   I teach a bit privately upon request.  If a young aspiring composer has heard my music, and then thinks that he or she can benefit by talking to me about their music, then I talk to them about it, and I look at it, and study it with them.  We study music, and that’s a very rarefied kind of teaching.  I don’t go into the public schools, though I applaud the noble efforts of some of my colleagues who do that.

BD:   Do you have any advice for young composers coming along?

Picker:   No.

BD:   Do you encourage them to keep on with their music, or do you encourage them to get out of music?
Picker:   Oh, I don’t encourage them to get out.  If they have talent, I encourage them to take it very, very seriously, and think very seriously about what they’re getting themselves into, because it’s not easy.  It’s very difficult.  A composer I admired as a child very much was Gian Carlo Menotti.  Every year at Christmastime, the Hallmark Hall of Fame presented Amahl and the Night Visitors on television.  That was my first exposure to contemporary music, and I looked forward to it every year.  I just loved it.  Even my sister and brother and I put on our own little performance of Amahl as a surprise for our parents when they came back from a trip.  I played Kaspar, one of the three visiting kings, who had a box which had drawers in it, and each drawer had a special thing inside.  One had jewels, another had magic stones, and the last one had licorice, long, black, shiny licorice.  That was my role.  When I was eight or nine, we had a little private unauthorized production of that.  [Sighs]  I’ll probably get a bill now from the Menotti Publishers.  [Both laugh]  So, I admired Menotti, and I wrote him a letter when I was eight.  I said that I’d written a few pieces, and that I would like to meet him and that I admired him.  He wrote back to me, which is a great big thrill for an eight-year-old, as you can imagine, and he said he’d love to meet me, but that he was sailing at the time for France for the new production of an opera he had just finished, and when he got back we would meet and he would look at my music.  But I was ashamed to show him what I had written at the time.  I didn’t think there was much there to show him, so I never followed it up.  I didn’t learn how to follow up until much later in life.  That’s my advice to young composers
follow up.  Always follow up.  Don’t let things just slide.  Seven years later he came to my high school as part of a career seminar.  There was a distinguished panel of accomplished people in their fields.  Besides Menotti, there was Eliot Feld, the choreographer, Brenda Lewis, a singer from the Met, Paul Henry Lang, a musicologist, and one or two other people.  It was a very distinguished panel.  They came to my high school library, and those of us who were interested went to this seminar discussion, and sat at the feet of these figures.  There was Menotti, whom I had not yet met, but had corresponded with seven or eight years before.  When it came his turn to give advice to us youngsters, he said, “You don’t become a composer.  You don’t choose to be a composer.  You either are one or you’re not, and if you are one, you know it.  He didn’t say whether you don’t continue if you’re not.  He didn’t go there.  He stopped there.  He just said, “If you are one, you know it.  It may sound trite or obvious, but a light bulb certainly went off in my head.  I had known I was a composer since I was a very small child, but my parents encouraged piano lessons.  It didn’t occur to them that a child of theirs could be someone who could grow up to be a professional composer.  They didn’t know that people did that, even though they were aware of people like Menotti.  They just thought they were very, very, very rare creatures, which they are.  It’s very difficult.  It’s very, very difficult.  Not everyone can be a composer.  Unfortunately, more people would like to be than can.  Not everyone can be an astronaut.  Not everyone can have a radio program.  Not everyone can be an anchorman.  Not everyone can be a police detective.  Composing is a profession and you have to really want to go after it.  It’s not something that comes after you.

BD:   I assume that you applaud this diversity.

Picker:   Of course.  I respect what other people do, and what other people’s callings are.  Where would we be without a police escort to my hotel room tonight, for instance?  [Laughs]

BD:   You mentioned that you were impressed with Menotti.  He’s a particularly lyrical composer, and I’m wondering if you would have been equally impressed with something by Milton Babbitt or Ralph Shapey.

Picker:   Well...  They weren’t presented by the Hallmark Hall of Fame as I can recall.  [Both laugh]  

BD:   That
s true.

Picker:   I don’t know.  I remember as a child, not long after, maybe I was eleven or twelve, seeing Stravinsky conduct on television.  I was watching with my grandmother, and I said,
This is just awful noise.  This is just terrible.  Let’s turn this off, and she quite agreed.  So we did turn it off.  So, had it been Milton Babbittthough he didn’t write Amahl and the Night Visitors... his Philomel is about as operatic as he’s ever gottenI doubt that I would have ended up writing the kind of music I do, if any.  But it wasn’t just Menotti that got me started.  I was in an environment in which classical music was a part of daily life.  WQXR-FM in New York was the major classical station at the time, in the ’50s, ’60s, and my parents subscribed to their Program Guide.  So from the time we tuned in to certain programs, and listened to them.  They told me this is Beethoven, or this is Brahms, and I loved that music.  It resonated in me.  Then I began reading the guide myself, and looking for things to listen to.  So radio played a major role in inspiring a young composer, more so, perhaps, than any other early influence.  Let me put the question to you.  How do you see your role as encouraging young composers?  I’d presume that you probably have much more influence than someone like me, because you’re able to put music on the air all the time.

BD:   I try to present as much, and as many different kinds of concert music as possible.

Picker:   That is a great thing to do.

BD:   Then at what point did you turn around and decide that Stravinsky was really great music?

Picker:   I didn’t discover Stravinsky until I was seventeen or eighteen.

BD:   Was it a surprise exposure to him, or was it something you sought out?

Picker:   I really don’t remember how I fell in love with Stravinsky.

BD:   But throughout all of this time, you were writing your own pieces?

Picker:   Yes, I was.  I must have sought him out.  He was the greatest living composer, so I went and got his records and scores, and started looking into them.  I then realized that this was a great master of the ages living amongst us.  In fact, he was just down the road a piece at the Essex house.  I never met Stravinsky, and the day he died I dedicated a little piano piece that I was writing to his memory.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about the idea of composing.  When you’re sitting at the desk and you’ve got a page that’s partly blank and partly filled in, you’ve got the pencil in your hand and you’re putting notes down.  Are you always controlling where that pencil goes, or are there times when the pencil leads you across the page?
Picker:   There are times when the music writes itself.  I compose at a piano a lot, and now I also use a synthesizer, my most recent compositional tool.  I’m an improviser, so despite rigorous training in form and analysis and serial techniques that I learned from my teacher, I simultaneously worked as a professional improviser for Martha Graham for dance.  I spent many years improvising music that would inspire people to move through space, and doing this through some musical structure given to me by the preset structure of the Graham technique.  The years of improvisation have served me well all this time.  So there are some pieces of mine which have quite literally written themselves, and there are other pieces I’ve sweated over every note.  Still other pieces have been very carefully planned from beginning to end, as much as one can do such a thing, with every parameter covered as much as possible.  A piece like Old and Lost Rivers simply wrote itself, and the vocal movement of my Second Symphony almost wrote itself.  I had to help it a little, but those are things that went very quickly.

BD:   Was that a little different because you were dealing with a text?  Did the words help to lead you on?

Picker:   No, it was harder with setting it for voice.  In The Encantadas, I wrote the music and then I figured out what words would go with the music.  I hope that the gods of opera don’t strike me down dead for saying so, but the opera that I’m writing now I’m approaching the same way.

BD:   Music first, then text???

Picker:   I’m writing the music that I think expresses what the text is supposed to express, and then I’ll figure out how the text should be set in the music.  This is exactly the opposite from what most conventional wisdom is about how to write an opera.  Benjamin Britten didn’t write a note until the libretto was completely finished.

BD:   You have an idea about the text, so you know where it’s going.  But then you’re going to fashion it around the music?

Picker:   Yes, so that the music will convey the action and the emotions, whether or not you can hear the words... although I want the words to be heard.  [Laughs]  An opera is not an oration.  It’s a piece of music and more, but sometimes one has a big piece like The Encantadas, one starts certain parts of it from the point of view of the text, and other parts from the point of view of just pure music.  But I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules.

BD:   When you’re starting out, do you know the length of time it will take to perform the music?

Picker:   I know what the contract says it’s supposed to do, and I try to stick with that.  I try to pace myself and to estimate it, yes.

BD:   When you get an offer, how do you decide if you’ll accept it and sign the contract, or turn it aside and do something else?

Picker:   That’s a very tricky question, and it has a very changeable answer depending on circumstances and how busy one is.  I don’t like to turn down any.  I don’t like to say no to anyone who wants music.  I suppose I have when I’ve had too many other things to do.  Then, since there are evidently musicians who value my music, I have to take into account financial considerations, crass as that may strike the listener.  Forgive me.

BD:   We don’t want to starve the composer.

Picker:   Oh, sure we do!  Our society does not like to think of composers as living well.  They should suffer.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Maybe not driving around in a Rolls Royce, but certainly not living in a box on the street!

Picker:   Well, somewhere in between, maybe.  Maybe we should all be living in the men’s shelter at Port Washington Avenue.  [Snickers]  I once had a very famous concertmaster say to me,
“Your problem is that you don’t suffer enough.

BD:   Was he serious, or was he just pulling your leg?

Picker:   Quite serious.

BD:   He thought there must be more angst in your music?

Picker:   I have no idea what was in his mind, but I don’t think there was that much in his mind to say such a thing.  Why should anyone have to suffer?

BD:   I wouldn’t wish suffering on anyone, especially a creative person.

Picker:   No, but this individual did.  There’s a tendency to want to think of composers as somehow doing The Lord’s Work, and somehow self-abnegation and self-deprivation are all part of that in order to remain pure.  But, of course, that’s a big crock.  Every composer wants to be comfortable.  Some composers are less concerned with greater comforts and material things than others.  I haven’t personally bought a new pair of shoes in three years or so.

BD:   Is that because of comfort, or lack of dollars?

Picker:   Lack of time, and difficulty actually in finding my shoe-size, because I have very large feet, and just basically lack the time and interest.  It’s hard for me to get very interested in how my shoes appear to the world as long as they’re comfortable to me.

BD:   [Pointing to my own, which were a bit dilapidated]  As you can see, mine are starting to fall apart, too.

Picker:   We can compare shoes, and mine look much worse than yours, but I resolved tomorrow to make time to go buy some clothes.  I haven’t bought clothes in years.  I have holes in my socks.  That happens when you get toward 40.  You buy less clothing, and you take care of things a little better so they last a little longer.

BD:   Suppose you had just won the lottery and had many millions of dollars.  Would that make your music any different at all?

Picker:   I don’t know.  What would that bring?  Let’s see...  How about a million-and-a-half or so a year after taxes.  That is actually not that much.

BD:   Let me rephrase the question.  Suppose all of a sudden you were given as much money as you needed.  Would that make any appreciable impact on the sound of the music coming off of the page?
Picker:   I have no idea what I would do if I were suddenly earning $13,000 a second from just doing nothing.  Would I no longer compose?  I don’t know.  Do you know what would you do?

BD:   I would change virtually nothing, because I’m so very happy with what I am doing.  I’m very lucky.

Picker:   Well, I guess I probably wouldn’t change much about what I would do, but I probably would have more shoes and socks and things like that... and I would have more time to compose, because I would hire people to do things that I have to do myself that aren’t composing.

BD:   You mean like shopping and vacuuming, or copying and editing?

Picker:   All those things, and also just the business end of following up and making sure that the music gets where it’s going, and that projects develop and evolve.  Projects sometimes take years to come to fruition, but if one had endless resources, one could have a staff to help with that, and just be cloistered in a room composing.  I would guess that I would compose more than I do now if I had unlimited resources, but I couldn’t swear for sure that that’s what I’d do.  Maybe I would just give up the whole thing and do something entirely different.  Maybe I would do something that would be more directly beneficial to mankind, or to a broader spectrum of mankind than what I do.  What I do is maybe beneficial, or it could be thought to be in the long run, but it would be nice to be able to go out and help people directly who are sleeping in cardboard boxes in doorways on cold winter nights.  If I had millions and millions of dollars, I would feel some sense of responsibility to use it to help people less fortunate than myself.  That would be a very time-consuming task, so that’s why it’s hard to say what I would do.  I’m not sure.  I might re-think my priorities.  I don’t know if I’d be able to give up composing.  On the other hand, I’m very, very, very lazy, I have to confess.  So it might maybe give me an excuse to stop composing.  But I’m sure I would also have tremendous energy while being very lazy.  I don’t know how you can be both, but I think I can.  So I’d be doing something, but I probably wouldn’t be suffering enough for that violinist.

BD:   [With a smirk]  You could pay to have him suffer.

Picker:   No, I wouldn’t.  I don’t believe in getting even with people.

BD:   Maybe you could pay to have yourself suffer.

Picker:   I suppose I could hire someone to torture me, but there are enough people that torture me for free as it is.  [Laughs]  It’s an interesting question, because unlikely as it is, halfway through one’s life one might rethink one’s goals and priorities.  You can look at composing in two ways.  It’s a very generous thing to do because you’re giving music to people everywhere who want it, and you’re giving them something that gives them some glimpses of a place, and a larger oneness.  But at the same time it’s a rather selfish pursuit because it’s self-gratifying, and the first rule of being a composer is that you have to write the music you want to hear, and it has to please you and gratify you.  That’s the first thing it has to do if you ever hope for it to do anything for anybody else.  But it is this selfish thing to do when you think about how people are suffering out there today, and who have nothing, and whose lives are shattered and torn and are virtually hopeless.  Nothing’s hopeless.  I believe nothing is really hopeless.

BD:   When you’re writing a piece, are you conscious of all of this distress?

Picker:   I live in New York City a lot of the time, so I’m conscious of it on a daily basis.  I put it out of my mind when I’m into the music, but when I go down to buy a quart of milk or walk the dog, seven people ask me if I’ll buy them food.  So yes, I am.  I don’t see how it couldn’t affect an artist.

BD:   And yet the music of yours that I’ve heard doesn’t seem to be laced with despair.

Picker:   Music doesn’t have to be laced to despair to be aware of despair.  Music can give hope.  Music can give solace.  Music can give joy.  Music can give peace.  I’d agree with you that it’s hard to think of something I’ve written that’s particularly laced with despair, although the Second Symphony has some despair in it.  But the music I write, if it’s in any way a response to the plight of the less fortunate, isn’t to make anybody feel worse.  It’s to make them feel better.  Not that they would ever even have a chance to hear it...  Maybe they would, but only in the abstract can they hear it, only in the long run, only in the grand scheme of things when we’re all gone.  Maybe it would be their children or grandchildren.

BD:   [Optimistically]  Having encountered some of your music, maybe that person would look more favorably upon the unfortunate.

Picker:   Maybe so.  I don’t mean to sound so evangelical here.  I never talk this way.  A week or two ago, a student told me that in New York on Broadway there are street people who sell things right off the sidewalk.  These are things people had found in the garbage.  There are books and lamps and rugs, and all kinds of things including sometimes music.  She saw a man sitting against a building on the sidewalk near one of these areas, and she went over to him.  He was a derelict, and if that’s not the politically correct term, he was very down-and-out.  But he was studying a score of mine.  She said,
I’d like to buy that from you,” and he said, Well, you can’t!  I just bought it, and it’s mine.

BD:   Your music had obviously touched his heart in some way.

Picker:   I don’t know.  Maybe.  My cousin, David Picker, made a movie about homeless people called The Saint of Fort Washington.  Danny Glover and Matt Dillon were in it, and it was just released a few months ago.  [The 1993 drama concerns a homeless schizophrenic who seeks the help of a streetwise combat veteran as they attempt to overcome cruel life on the streets.  Dillon won the award for Best Actor at the 1993 Stockholm Film Festival for his performance.]

BD:   Did he ask you to do the soundtrack?

Picker:   No, he’s the producer.  The director usually chooses the composer.  I haven’t done any film scores, but it was a wonderful movie, certainly very gripping.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Let me turn the conversation back to your music.  Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your works over the years?

Picker:   Yes, basically I have.  I’ve been very lucky with performances.  They have been very good performances, for the most part.  We have extraordinary musicians today, and I’ve been blessed with some of the best musicians to play my music.  Now we’re living through a period in which some of the concert stars are beginning to take an interest in new music.  They are commissioning it and performing it, so not only myself but my colleagues are reaping the benefits of writing for extraordinary musicians.  Sometimes this works out very well, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes the concert star is very disappointed in the piece that gets written for him or her.  They get the piece, and then they decide they don’t like it, and they don’t want to play it.  [This is nothing new.  Perhaps the most famous examples are Paganini encouraging Berlioz to write Harold in Italy, and then rejecting it.  Later, the Walton Viola Concerto, written in 1929 at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham, was rejected by Lionel Tertis, and was premiered by Paul Hindemith.]

BD:   Does it please you that someone of the magnitude of Christoph Eschenbach has championed your work, having encountered it in Houston, and then taking it elsewhere?

Picker:   It pleases me to no end.  It’s all that a composer could hope for, and more.

BD:   You were composer-in-residence in Houston for how long?

Picker:   For five years.

BD:   Is that a good position for a composer, to be composer-in-residence with a major orchestra?

Picker:   It’s a good position if you make it into a position.  It’s a position you have to create because every orchestra is different, every community is different, every Board different.  You really have to make something out of it, to fashion something after a vision based on an amalgamation of your own ideas, and what the communities and the orchestra’s needs are.

BD:   Did you take an active role in the musical life of Houston?

Picker:   Yes, I took a very active role.

BD:   Then when your time was up there, you left and went back to New York?

Picker:   My time wasn’t exactly up.  We had a wonderful relationship, and we wanted to continue it, but I decided that five years was a long time to be composer-in-residence in one place, and to write for the same orchestra so many times.  So I decided that I needed to go back out into the world and make my way again, because I was getting a little stuck in Houston.  They were most generous in offering me another year of residency, a sixth year, and I don’t believe anyone had decided in advance when my time would be up.  But I came to a very, very difficult decision that my time was up there.  I needed to go on and do other things, work with other orchestras more, and develop an opera that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, which I’m now doing.  But for me, it was a great position.  I can’t speak for others.  I’ve heard various good and bad things from people.  I got to meet so many conductors and players.

BD:   I’ve asked you advice for other composers.  What advice do you have for audiences today who want to get more into the symphonic literature?

Picker:   There’s certainly an abundance of it out there.  They can buy CDs, or go to the library and borrow recordings.  I don’t know the state of classical music on the radio, but it seems to be better in Chicago than it is in New York.  It’s better almost anywhere than in New York.  There are some incredible radio stations in the country.  Chicago is fantastic, St. Paul is terrific, as is San Francisco.  There’s an abundance of classical music available, and it’s just a matter of going to the trouble of seeking it out.  Usually, a good record store has somebody in it that will be happy to advise people on what things to buy and try out.  I’ve been in record stores and seen this happen.  It’s expensive to go to concerts, but you don’t have to sit in the orchestra to hear the orchestra.  Sitting anywhere you can hear what it’s like live.  There should be a balance of listening at home and also going to hear live concerts because they’re so different.

BD:   What about listening to new music?

Picker:   New music is so much less threatening now than it used to be.

BD:   Is that a good thing?

Picker:   It’s a good thing for sure.  I don’t think audiences are as afraid of new music as they used to be, because composers are not writing as densely as they were.  There was a period when composers were writing music that appeared hostile to the audience which was accustomed to standard the classical repertoire.  Even though it may not have been intended as such, there was evidence that it was.  Milton Babbitt wrote an article called
Who Cares If You Listen?  I don’t think that was a very good public relations move on behalf of promoting the living art to audiences.  In the end, it is musicians who decide what music survives, meaning the people who play the music and conduct it, and not the audiences.  But I love an audience, and I know colleagues who also love an audience.  Is that pandering, or is it doing my job, writing music that means something to people?

BD:   I would assume that as long as it means something to you first, then that answers the question.

Picker:   Yes.  I never have written a note that didn’t mean something to me first.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer, and thank you for coming to Chicago. 

Picker:   It
s a pleasure to be in the Windy City again.  I was here once before when Ursula Oppens played an early piano piece of mine at the Contemporary Concert Series.  [See CD below]

BD:   Thank you for speaking with me tonight.  I appreciate it.

Picker:   You’re welcome.  I enjoyed speaking with you.


© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in in Chicago on March 9, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB four months later, and again in 1999.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.