Composer  Jon  Polifrone

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Jon Polifrone, born in Durand, Michigan, January 10, 1937, died March 11, 2006, at Loyola University Medical Center.

Polifrone retired as professor of music from Virginia Tech in 2002, and then taught part-time at Judson College, Waubonsee Community College, and Wheaton College. He received a BM and MM from Michigan State University and a D.Mus from Florida State University.

He was on the faculty of Jordan Conservatory (Indianapolis, 1963-1977), Indiana State University (full professor of music, 1963-1977), the University of Nebraska at Omaha (chairman, music department, JJB Isaacson professor, 1977-1980), and Virginia Tech (music department chairman, 1980-1983, full professor, 1980-2002).

Polifrone was a fellow of St. Joseph's College (Indiana), a Rockefeller Grant recipient, and four of his compositions were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He received commissions for compositions from many musical groups, including the Indianapolis Symphony, the Audubon Quartet, and Ars Viva. He was a member of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Geneva.

He is survived by his wife, Sharon, and daughter, Alisa.

We met in March of 1994, and the subject turned to computers and other new-age devices . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   We’re talking about technical gadgets and gimmickry.  How much does the technical wizardry of the 1990s and heading into the twenty-first century impede your teaching of the actual craft of music making?

Jon Polifrone:   I’m not much into the new stuff, where Virginia Tech has a lot of it.  We have state-of-the-art everything.  Basically, what I find that it does is invade my privacy.

BD:   Does it help with the working out of music, or is this more for performers rather than composers?

Polifrone:   A lot of my students use the computer to print their music.  They send it to me that way before their lessons.  It prints out the scores, and I can look at what they’re working on.  If you put a pen in their hand and ask them to make a correction in a part, I don
t know if they could.  Logistically, they’re so used to punching buttons.

BD:   If they get to a rehearsal, and they need to make a correction, they have to take it back home to the computer???

Polifrone:   I guess.
BD:   You
re both a composer and a teacher.  How do you divide your time between those two taxing activities?

Polifrone:   About 90% composition and 10% teaching.  I spend a lot of time composing.

BD:   Do you find that working with students helps in your composing?

Polifrone:   Yes, it does.  Being around students is a wonderful experience.  They always have fresh ideas.  They’re always just a little bit on the edge, and it
s good.  It keeps me young.

BD:   Are they ever over the edge?

Polifrone:   Some of them are over the edge, some are on the edge, and some are back further.

BD:   As a working composer, how close to the edge do you like to be?

Polifrone:   I
m not very close to the edge.  I like other people to walk along the edge, and then I try to pick up from them what I think works.

BD:   You pick up the pieces?

Polifrone:   Yes, I pick up the pieces that really work well.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  That’s not to say you steal everything, does it?

Polifrone:   No, we don
t steal everything, but composers aren’t very honest really.

BD:   Should they be?

Polifrone:   No.  They should write music about other music.  I really believe that.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Write music about other music, rather than music about what
s inside of you???

Polifrone:   It is inside of you, but still you
re always influenced by what other people have done.  We are strongly influenced by it more than one might want to admit.

BD:   Do you feel you
re part of a lineage of composers?

Polifrone:   I think most composers are, yes.

BD:   Do you like where you fit into that lineage?

Polifrone:   I
m comfortable where I am.  I wasn’t when I was younger, because I always felt that there was that camp that I had to belong to in order to be considered one of the group.  But as one gets older, you dont think about that so much anymore.  You write what you like to hear.

BD:   Always?

Polifrone:   Yes, I do now as I get older.

BD:   In the
60s, everyone was trying to push you into the atonal camp and the twelve-tone camp.  Is it a good thing that we’ve broken out of this?

Polifrone:   I think so in a way.  I love the variety of things.  I know that a lot of composers feel that what they
re writing is absolutely right, and what other people are writing is not right, but I’ve never really felt that way.  I actually really like everything pretty much thats going on in the contemporary scene.  I enjoy it all even though I might not do it.  It wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but I can appreciate it.

BD:   We
re talking about concert music?

Polifrone:   Right.

BD:   Do you also include rock music, and jazz, and rap, and all of the other things?

Polifrone:   Well, I suppose I
m a little bit of an elitist that way.  I enjoy some jazz.  People tell me that Im actually very influenced by jazz, although I dont see it myself particularly.

BD:   It’s a subconscious thing?

Polifrone:   It’s subconscious.  If you live here, you can’t help but emulate the sounds of your country and your surroundings to some degree.

BD:   Is there anything particularly American about your music, or is it music of Western society?

Polifrone:   I would say it’s more Western than it is typically American.

BD:   Is the music that you write, for everyone?

Polifrone:   Probably not.  You look at TV at night and they have the weather forecast on.  They pan a map of the United States, and they have the State of Illinois outlined, sort of highlighted.  That
s because people who are looking at it dont really know where Illinois is, and a lot of people dont really know where they are.  If they dont know where they are, they dont care where they are, and if they dont care where they are, they certainly aren’t interested in art, and literature, and music.

BD:   Where is music these days?

Polifrone:   I wish I knew.  There’s a lot of it in my head, but I don’t know.  I had a teacher once who said that music was dead.  His name was Carlisle Floyd.  He shocked the class terribly by saying that, and I don’t really know that he meant it.  I didn’t ask him when he was here for his Lyric performance [Susannah with Renée Fleming and Samuel Ramey, led by George Manahan] if he still believed that or not.  The only thing I did say to him was that I knew I was a rather disturbing student to have, but I wanted him to know that at age fifty-seven I absolutely agreed with almost everything he said.

BD:   He’s one of the great tonal composers.

Polifrone:   He’s a tonal composer, even probably more tonal than I.

BD:   Thirty years ago, was he lamenting the death of tonal music?

Polifrone:   No, I don’t believe he was.  I never got that feeling.  He just thought that the art of music was pretty much dead, and everything that could be done had been done.  Of course, it hadn’t.  It still hasn’t been, I’m sure.

BD:   If you’re starting to agree with what he says, do you think that the art of music is dead?

Polifrone:   No, I don’t.  Not really.

BD:   Did it ever die and we had to jump-start, it or did we just not realize that it was still a living, breathing organism?

Polifrone:   Maybe we didn’t realize it, but it’s around, and it will be around a long time.  People keep experimenting and get tired of some of it, and they keep some of it, and incorporate it, and it will go on.

BD:   Who decides what is kept and what is discarded?

Polifrone:   The composers.  It’s a very small community.  You’re supposed to be interviewing me, but do you think that the audiences would really control this?  [Answering his own question]  I don’t know.  I suppose, economically to some degree they would, and maybe that’s why a lot of orchestras are museums.  It’s very hard to put new music on a program.  You put it first and people come late.  You put it in the middle, and they leave after the first piece.  It’s hard to know.

BD:   Is there any hope?

Polifrone:   Sure.  There’s always hope.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

Polifrone:   Yes, I am, very much so.  Composers have to be, because they’re obsessed about writing.  That’s what they do.  They suppose it will always last, but it’s still here.  I watched the CCP [Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago] for instance, which is always very interesting.  They program a lot of interesting things at the University of Chicago, including a lot of music that I, myself, would not be inclined toward as far as being a composer is concerned.  But it’s interesting to hear the stuff, and there’s a hard core of people who come out, and listen to it, and support it, and there always will be.

BD:   Are you of two different minds
what you would want to write, and what you would want to listen to?

Polifrone:   I write what I would like to hear in my own little world.  However, I do enjoy concerts, and I do attend a lot of them.

BD:   When you’re writing, sitting with the page partially blank and partially filled in, are you conscious of the audience that’s going to be listening to those little black spots when they become sound?

Polifrone:   Not really.  I’m very pleased when somebody likes a piece that I’ve written.  Sometimes I’m even surprised, but on the other hand, I don’t think I am conscious of them.  Subconsciously, you take in the audience, but whenever I’m making a decision, I never feel that no, I can’t really do that because somebody may not like it.
BD:   Have you ever consciously put something in because you know they will like it?

Polifrone:   Yes, I’ve done that.  I have a pragmatic view of things.  I’m not above being slightly commercial if I feel I must add this or that.

BD:   Something which will send them home with smiles on their faces?

Polifrone:   Yes.  There’s a movement of the Requiem that everybody picks out.  It’s the movement, actually, that I like the least, but I’m delighted that they love it.  It is very tonal, very sweet, and very simple.

BD:   Is it the most accessible part of the work?

Polifrone:   Yes, the most accessible.  I didn’t put it in because I felt at that point I needed that sort of thing, but it’s there and that’s all right.  I’ve resisted having people do it separately.  A lot of people who looked at the score said, “This is just much too hard.  We can’t take the time, but we could do, for instance, these three middle movements,” but I’ve nixed that idea so far.

BD:   It’s the whole thing or nothing?

Polifrone:   Right now, yes.  Maybe later on...

BD:   Do you view that as the hook
that if they listen to this movement, maybe they’ll listen a little more intently to the rest of your music?

Polifrone:   No.  I didn’t do it intentionally, but it’s going to be the hook, I’m almost sure.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re talking about the Requiem, so tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

Polifrone:   I love the human voice.  It’s probably the greatest instrument because it’s part of the body, so it’s connected somehow in my mind, in a very romantic way, with the soul and everything that we are.  I’ve always been partial to the voice, although I went through a period of almost ten years when I didn’t write anything.

BD:   Just because it didn’t come up, or because you were purposely avoiding it?

Polifrone:   I wasn’t avoiding it.  No, it just didn’t come up.  I had written several hundred songs, and all kinds of choral works, and operas [Wicked Sam and the Devil (1965), premiere Evanston, IL, February, 1966; Kentucky Story; premiere Union College, Barbourville, KY, (also) February, 1966.].  Then I just stopped.  It was probably just due to the sort of life I was leading, and the musicians that I knew.  They were all chamber music players, so I went through a period of just writing sonatas, and duos, and string quartets, and trios.  Recently, I’ve gone back to vocal music.  I started with Rilke.  I was reading Rilke, and I set several poems for baritone and piano.  This choral director that I know suggested I write a work for community chorus in Blacksburg.  They were not professional, but a very good sounding chorale in town.  I ended up writing this Requiem.  I’ve always wanted to write a Requiem because I love the text.  The interesting thing is that the text means nothing to most people, just because we’re just not oriented to it.  No one’s scared of the Day of Judgment these days, and I just thought there must be something I can do to that text.  I should be able to breathe some life into it that will make people stop and think about life and death.

BD:   [Somewhat confused]  Breathe some life into the text of the dead???

Polifrone:   Yes, make it of the present.  Give somebody something to believe in and hold on to.

BD:   Are you trying to start your own religion of music?

Polifrone:   No, not at all.  I just felt that people are very secular today.  That’s all right if they want to be, but there just has to be some way to make them stop and think about the seriousness of death.

BD:   Not in any organized religious sense, but is music secular or is it sacred?

Polifrone:   It is sort of my religion.

BD:   Coming back to the human voice, is there a major difference setting a text for the choral group as opposed to the solo voice?

Polifrone:   Yes.  You have to know your soloists, and the possibility that you can hide a lot in a choir.  It’s like the difference between writing a string quartet or writing a symphony.  Except for the copy or the logistics, a quartet is much harder to write than a symphony.

BD:   Because everything is exposed?

Polifrone:   Yes, it is.  By the way, just to say the string quartet is hard because no humbug could go on during the composition, you can hide a lot in that beautiful lush sound of an orchestra, and, if nothing else, you can confuse everybody having all kinds of things go on.  It’s the same way with voices.  A chorus has such a wonderful nice, big, beautiful sound.  You can cover a lot.

BD:   Do you specify the size
whether it should be a small chorus or a large chorus?

fields Polifrone:   No.  I’ve never done that, but the piece sometimes forces you to.  When Craig Fields, director of the Blacksburg Chorale, started working on the Requiem, he said, “Our group is not going to be big enough.  I’m to require at least sixty-five voices because I need more power here.”  So, we added the concert choir of Virginia Tech, which is another sixty-five or seventy voices, and it made it really very nice.

BD:   You’re like Tim
The Tool Man Taylor [from the TV sitcom Home Improvement].  His catch phrase was, More power!

Polifrone:   More power, yes.  He wanted more power, and I know why.

BD:   Was he right?

Polifrone:   I think he was right.  We use a lot of semi-chorus where half the people sing, and then all the people sing.  We would have one choir of about sixteen, where we just had them sing solo sections.

BD:   Considering that these are students, are students like students all over the country?

Polifrone:   Yes, they are. The bad ones are as bad. The good ones are as good. The average ones are as average, and the charming ones are as charming.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Putting on your other hat, how long have you been teaching?

Polifrone:   Since 1960.

BD:   How has your method of teaching changed, if at all, over more than thirty years?

Polifrone:   When I first began teaching, I didn’t know what I was doing.  You used to watch the clock and think, “Oh, my God, I hope this hour is over with before I’ve told them everything I know.”

BD:   This of course implies that you know what you’re doing now.  Is that a correct assumption?

Polifrone:   I’m not sure.  I don’t think you’re ever sure of that.  I still have qualms when I first walk out in the fall or spring semester.

BD:   What are you teaching?

Polifrone:   I teach composition, and music history.

BD:   Are the students that come to you genuinely interested in what you have to say?

Polifrone:   Not always.  There’s a certain amount of work to try to get them interested, especially in a class.  If they come for private lessons in composition, it’s a little bit different.  Generally, they’re interested, or seemingly so.  But I don’t think students are as well-prepared as they used to be.  I’m speaking in generality.  That doesn’t mean some aren’t.

BD:   What advice do you have for the aspiring music student to be more prepared?

Polifrone:   Listen to a lot of classical music.  A lot of it.  I always tell my students, “There’s a library over there, and it’s the seventeenth largest university library in the country.  It has thousands and thousands of records, and thousands and thousands of CDs.  It doesn’t matter where you start, just start listening.  Get the scores out and start listening.”

BD:   Do they follow that advice?

Polifrone:   No, not always.

BD:   Is this a general trend across the country, that there’s a lot less listening to classical music these days?

Polifrone:   I don’t know.  They say that the advent of the CD has caused people to listen a lot more.  I don’t know how carefully people listen, but I think there are more people listening.

BD:   More people listening less intently?

Polifrone:   Maybe, except for a few.

BD:   We’re dancing all around this, so let me hit you the big question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

Polifrone:   Do you mean from a musician’s standpoint, or from a listener’s standpoint?

BD:   A then B.

Polifrone:   I don’t know, but I’ll take a guess.  For the musician, music exists for their pleasure and their self-education.  For the general public, music exists partly for their education, and partly for serenity and thoughtfulness.  Those are not necessarily the same thing that it gives them.  It gives them a chance to think about something other than their normal work.  It enriches their lives.  It’s a very important part of life.  Even the young people who just love acid rock are very wound up in it.  Music is very important to them and their life.  They identify with these works, and they all have a great deal of meaning, just like certain Beethoven symphony, or a Brahms symphony, or a piece by Ravel has a great deal of meaning for me.

BD:   Should we try to get more of the acid rock crowd into the concert hall?

Polifrone:   Oh absolutely, we should.

BD:   Is there any way to do it?

Polifrone:   I don’t know.  I get a few converts each year.  From a Survey of Music class of seventy-five or eighty students, I might actually get three or four who are really serious converts.  Then I feel I’ve done pretty well.  Too bad it’s not more...

BD:   Is listening to music substantially different when you do it in a concert hall with live players, as opposed to a small room with either speakers or headphones?

Polifrone:   It is to me.  There was a time when the organization of music was everything
the way it was put together, all the chords that were used, all the sonorities, and the orchestration.  I had an enormous collection of records, but I wasn’t so aware of who particularly played them, or who had recorded them.  Then I went the next step, which was was very important, and I was very fussy about which recording I bought.  Now, I don’t really care so much to listen to canned music as I call it.  I want to see it.  I want to hear it, see it, and feel it.  I like the physical reinforcement of what I hear.  I love live music, and I almost exclusively listen to music live now.  I go to concerts.  I only use the recordings and the CDs in the class.  I try to even bring more and more faculty in to play.  I use film, and I use all kinds of things, such as VHS tapes of anything I can find of rehearsals and performances.  I make my students go to concerts, lots of concerts.  Anyone in my class must attend at least ten recitals of my choice during the semester.  There are twenty or twenty-five, of which they must go to ten.

BD:   That’s more reasonable than insisting on any one particular concert.

Polifrone:   I think it’s very important, and they seem to enjoy it.  They like to go to concerts.  They gripe about it at first, especially if you get someone who is not a music major.  I’d get some sort of tough student who is in the college of engineering, and he’s elected to take this class because he thinks humanities is elective, and it’s going to be easy.  But you can convert them.

BD:   Should we really be shoving humanities down their throats?

Polifrone:   Sure.  Absolutely.

BD:   [Sternly]  You’re to like it whether you enjoy it or not!

Polifrone:   Right.

BD:   But once they have tried it, they find it is fun?

Polifrone:   Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s go back to your composition.  When you’re working with a page and all the notes and your ideas, and you’re polishing up everything, how do you know when you’re finished, and it is all set and ready to go?

Polifrone:   I’m never finished.  It’s just that I get very tired, and I draw the line.  I don’t think there’s ever any end to it.

BD:   Do you go back and tinker with the piece?

Polifrone:   Not once I’ve said it’s the end.  I don’t tinker much.  A performer may make me tinker a little bit with it.  They’ll say, “This is harder than its worth,” or, “What did you really mean here?  I’m going around in circles.
 They’ll force you to zero in on something.  But generally, when I’m finished I’m ready to write the next piece.

BD:   Do you allow for interpretation on the part of the performers?

Polifrone:   Absolutely.  The ideal thing for me is to just give them the piece and walk out the door.  I like to have them read it through for me once, so I can catch any errors in the parts or things like that.  This can be slowly, or up to tempo.  It doesn’t matter.  If they can play it up to tempo first time, fine, but then I leave them basically alone.  It’s their piece.  It’s not mine anymore.

BD:   Do you then come back for the performance?

Polifrone:   Yes.

BD:   Are you always pleased with what you hear?

Polifrone:   Not always, but mostly yes.  If I’m not pleased, I’m not usually surprised.  In fact, very seldom am I surprised.  It sounds like it was supposed to sound.

BD:   That’s good.  Then you just let it go?  You don’t go back and revise?

Polifrone:   No.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want lots of versions of pieces lying around?

Polifrone:   [Smiles]  No.  I’m not a Bruckner.

BD:   Do you take advice from other people?

Polifrone:   Yes, I do, especially if I’m writing a solo piece, or a sonata, or something along that line.  I do like advice, and I like feedback.

BD:   If someone asks you to write a piece, how do you decide if you’re going to spend the time, or just tell them to go someplace else?

Polifrone:   There are two or three things that are primary in my mind.  One is how good the performer is, and how likely I am to get a good performance.  That’s very important.  Second is how many performances, or where it will be played, and what sort of life might the piece have with this performer.  Third is a little money wouldn’t hurt, but the first two are more important.

BD:   I assume the money is extra, and that the university takes care of your living wage.

Polifrone:   Yes.  I’m not a goody-two-shoes, but I feel that there’s a state university that supports me, and if I have any talent, that talent should be shared, and I should write music.  That’s what I do.  So, that’s my life.  Yes, I certainly will take commissions, and the less I like the combination of instruments, or the less I like the performers, the more the piece is going to cost!  But luckily I have a lot of good friends, and a lot of lovely people who play well.

BD:   Have you written some things especially for violin solo?
Polifrone:   Yes, I have.  Since I married Sharon, I’ve written three violin sonatas, a sonatina, an unaccompanied violin sonata, and a violin concerto for her.  When she was in the Audubon Quartet, I had to go that route.  I also wrote an unaccompanied viola sonata, and a sonata for piano and viola, an unaccompanied cello sonata, a sonata for cello and piano, and a cello concerto.  I’m now actually considering a viola concerto for the violist of the Audubon.  So, I’ve tried to cover a lot of ground, as well as five string quartets, a string trio, and a duo for violin and cello.

BD:   Are these things that you have to write, or do you feel obligated to do them?

Polifrone:   No, I don’t feel obligated.  It’s just they’re wonderful players.  You sort of get into the swing of things, and think, “Gosh, I may actually know a little bit about string writing.  I’ve had plenty of practice, and maybe I should write another string piece.”

BD:   When you start writing a piece, do you know beforehand the amount of time it will take to perform?

Polifrone:   No.  Lord, no.  I don’t know anything when I start, except there’s a piece of paper staring me in the face with a pencil.  I know that nobody threw fruit at me when the last piece was played, so I wonder if I can write another piece and get away with it.  Can I really write another good piece of music, or even an acceptable one?  There’s always that question.

BD:   Are you re-inventing the wheel each time?

Polifrone:   Yes, I think I probably do.  I’m a fretful type.

BD:   What is it about a piece of music that makes it great, rather than just acceptable?  This can be about yours, or anyone else’s.

Polifrone:   I don’t know.  I wish I knew what the formula was, because if I did, then every piece I wrote would be great.  What makes a person compose like Fauré did?  Fauré wrote a lot of beautiful songs, and he wrote a lot of nice stuff.  He wrote some organ music, but then he wrote the Requiem, and it’s a magnificent piece.  There aren’t many Beethovens around who write a lot of magnificent pieces.  I guess it’s in most of us to write maybe two or three really pretty good tunes, but what makes them that, I’m not sure.

BD:   Should we only be listening to the great pieces?  Should we also be listening to the next level, and the level below that?

Polifrone:   I think so, because you can learn a lot.  You can enjoy music at all sorts of levels.

BD:   In the music you write or in music in general, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the enjoyment level?

Polifrone:   I don’t know.  When I clean out my closet, I generally burn the pieces that I don’t think are successful, and that I don’t like.  I have to think that they’re successful, and I also have to like them before I don’t burn them.  I don’t want some musicologist sticking his nose into all that stuff, and giggling about it later on.  I’d like them to at least say, “I don’t know who this guy is, and he never had a career, but this is a critical piece of music.”  I would want that.  I wouldn’t want them to look at something and say, “I’ve never heard of him, and I don’t know who he is, and now I know why.”

BD:   Is there anything special that you would like to say to someone one hundred years from now?

Polifrone:   No.  I hope that my music might say something to them.  I don’t know that it would, but if it did, wonderful.

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

Polifrone:   Go into medicine.  But if they absolutely have to go into music, and they absolutely have to compose, then go to a lot of concerts, and listen to a lot of music, and be patient.  Unless you’re Mendelssohn or Mozart, maybe when you’re forty or fifty you will write something worthwhile if you really work at it.

BD:   Without mentioning any names, do we have in this generation a Mendelssohn or a Mozart?

Polifrone:   I don’t know.

BD:   I assume this [twentieth] century has a few Mendelssohns and Mozarts.

Polifrone:   I’m sure.  I have some composers that are very near and dear to me, but other people might not agree.  But yes, we’ve had a lot of wonderful composers in this century.  It’s about to end...  [Remember, this conversation was held in March of 1994.]

BD:   Where do you see it going in the next century?

Polifrone:   I don’t know...  More good composers, I suppose.

BD:   That’s a positive statement.  I like that.  Are you at the point in your career now that you want to be?

Polifrone:   Of course, no one is, I don’t think, but I am resigned to be what I am, and I’m also sure enough of myself.  Rather than say that I’m happy, I would say contented.

BD:   Is composing fun?

Polifrone:   It’s work, but yes, it’s fun.  Sure, it’s fun.  When I was about sixteen, I was working on some damn Beethoven sonata.  My teacher was a real taskmaster, and had studied with Boulanger [who herself had studied with Fauré], and was a Paris Conservatoire graduate.  But in a way, that was nice because she was aware that there was something else in the world besides just practicing the piano.  I turned to her one day and said, “I’ve decided that I do not want to be a piano player.  I want to be a composer.  I don’t want to take it anymore, I want to hand it out.”  I remember that very clearly.

BD:   Did she agree with you?

Polifrone:   Yes.  She had heard me stumble through enough Beethoven sonatas.

BD:   Was she confident at all of your ability to create something?

Polifrone:   I don’t know.  She seemed to be.  She was well-trained in theory, and solfège, and all those things, so the lessons changed a bit to reading scores, and ear training, and that sort of thing.  It was a big help.

BD:   You have no regrets about being a composer?

Polifrone:   No, not really.

BD:   You shouldn’t have been a doctor?

Polifrone:   No, I don’t like the sight of blood.  I can’t even watch him take blood, or give me a shot.  I’m not squeamish about it, but I just don’t want to look.  [Pauses a moment to think]  Composers work really hard to get people to do their music.  People don’t really want to do it sometimes, and I’ve often wondered what would happen if a generation or two of composers would just burn everything they wrote when they died.  After a couple of generations, I wonder if anyone would care.  That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

BD:   It seems to be a scorched-earth policy.

Polifrone:   It’s a scorched-earth policy.  I don’t think I’ve had enough nerve to burn everything.  I could probably burn nine out of ten pieces that I’ve written and feel pretty good about it, but it’s that 10th one...

BD:   Is there anything that can be done to get more enthusiasm on the part of the audience for new pieces?

Polifrone:   I don’t know.  People just need to have the experience of hearing.  People love what they know.  I’ve heard many people say, “I really like that piece, but I’m not really too sure of it.  After all, when I really stop and think about this, I’m not sure if I really like it, or if I’m just getting used to it.”  That’s human nature.  If more music could be played and have us not lose our audience, in the meantime that would help.  But I don’t know how to work that.

BD:   You’d rather just be writing music?

Polifrone:   I’d rather be writing music.

BD:   Would your music be any different if someone tapped you on the head and said you’re now a billionaire?

Polifrone:   No, it wouldn’t.  It might be a little bit better known because I could afford to organize a few concerts
not only of my stuff, but some other people’s, too.

BD:   You’d be a patron of the other composers.

Polifrone:   Absolutely.  Sure.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.

Polifrone:   Thank you very much.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago in March of 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later, and again in 1997 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2022, 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.