Composer  Mel  Powell
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


For some reason, it seems that composing and baseball go together.  It is known that many composers are dedicated fans of the sport, as are other musicians.  William Schuman even wrote an opera called The Mighty Casey based on the famous poem. 
[See my Interview with William Schuman.]  Conductor Leonard Slatkin has made no secret of his affection for the St. Louis Cardinals.  [See my Interviews with Leonard Slatkin.]  Even P.D.Q. Bach famously analyzed the Beethoven Fifth Symphony as a play-by-play action commentary.  [See my Interview with Peter Schickele.] 

As I prepare this interview for the website, it is just over a quarter-century after the conversation took place, and I do not remember whether or not I knew specifically that Mel Powell had actually wanted to be a baseball player himself.  That fact is mentioned in the obituary (published a month after his death) in The Scotsman, and the brief chit-chat we had at the beginning of our session includes references to the sport as it was happening on that day at the end of June in 1987. 

I also, obviously, did not know that three years later Powell would win the Pulitzer Prize.  So our discussion was just about music
— mostly his own and a bit about others’.  The conversation was arranged to be part of my ongoing radio series on WNIB, specifically to celebrate his upcoming 65th birthday and future anniversaries at five-year intervals. 

Here is what was said during that phone call . . . . .

Mel Powell:    Hello?

Bruce Duffie:    May I speak with Mel Powell, please?

MP:    Yes, speaking.

BD:    This is Bruce Duffie in Chicago.

MP:    Oh, yes.  You’re right on time.

BD:    How are you?

MP:    Fine.  And you?

BD:    Pretty good.  I was watching a little bit of the Cubs’ game just before I called you, and they’re leading four to nothing in the first inning.

MP:    So, Chicago celebrates!

BD:    [Laughs]  They’ve batted around.  The pitcher was just coming up, and it’s not often that the pitcher will bat before he throws the ball.

MP:    That’s remarkable.

BD:    Yes.  There were two on and two out when I left it to make this call, but I’d much rather talk to you this evening. 

MP:    [Laughs]

BD:    How are things in California?

MP:    They’re calm and fairly serene.

powellBD:    That
s good.  I want to talk about music and your attitude toward music, but first I want to say how much I enjoy not only your music but also the covers of the two Nonesuch records.  [Shown at right, and farther down the page.]

MP:    Oh, I’m delighted.  I take great pleasure from all my amateur accomplishments.  [Both laugh]

BD:    At one point does amateur become professional?

MP:    In America we are economic determinists.  One
’s profession has been that which is your bread winning, but no composer that I know of can really claim to be a professional in that sense.  We’re all paid for teaching rather than composing.  So it would be difficult.  I suppose your brethren, your colleagues, determine whether you belong to the guild or not.

BD:    In music, who should determine that
— fellow performers or the audience or the critics or who?

MP:    You mean professionalism?

BD:    Yes, or whether you should even be around?

MP:    Oh.  I don’t think it matters much, not in our field now.  I wouldn’t think mattered whether we were around or were not around.

BD:    [Somewhat taken aback]  Really???

MP:    It wouldn’t seem to affect the mainstream of the musical world with which I identify and with what a fairly large public identifies it with; that is to say, the performance consciousness.  Everyone seems very interested in recordings of special kinds.  People are listening more to surface noise, it seems to me, than anything else
— or the absence thereof.  It doesn’t seem to matter what’s recorded again and again and again of the older literature, so long as it’s no longer on cassette but is now on compact disc.  I think there’s a generation trained to listen for surface noise.

BD:    Are they then disappointed when they go into a concert hall and hear a fan or a chair creak or a cough?

MP:    I bet they must.  They must turn to one another and say, “Don’t you get some hiss here?”  They don’t realize that this hiss is simply directed at the composer of serious new music.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Let me ask a very simple question then
— what should be the ultimate purpose of music in today’s society?

MP:    I think what it always has been.  For some it will be exaltation of a sort, one of the grandest enterprises of the human spirit.  For others, I suppose, it will be perhaps a way to pass the time without having to be quiet, sort of a space-filler with some entertainment.  I’m not really saying that with my nose in the air.  What I mean is that it has always functioned at several levels.  As recently as the beginning of this century, no less a thinker than Whitehead said that there were only two candidates for the most original creation of mortal mind
— one was mathematics and the other was music.  So that’s one view of what the rank of music is.

BD:    Those two
— music and mathematicsso often go together.

MP:    They often go together.  They may, ultimately, in the eyes of God be diverse branches of the same tree or something of that sort.  Then on the other hand, there’s Madonna.  [Both laugh]  I think it’s very much a question of to whom we’re addressing whatever is speaking to us.  There are publics and publics is all I meant to acknowledge.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, for what public are you writing?

MP:    Myself.

BD:    Only?

MP:    I’m very severe.  I’m a terribly severe audience, a terribly severe critic.  Sometimes I wish to borrow the statement that’s ascribed to the great Giacometti when he said, “One works in order to try to discern more clearly why one fails.”

BD:    The music of Mel Powell has not failed, has it?

MP:    Well, I hope not.

BD:    You mentioned the word entertainment.  Is there an entertainment value in concert music?

MP:    I’m sure there is because it seems to be very well attended.  For example, let’s take a composer like Brahms.  There certainly ought not to be too much controversy about Brahms.  When the public, the large public or fairly large public goes to the concert hall and hears, let us say, the First or Second Piano Concerto of Brahms, I don’t imagine that the listener is aware of the fact that the compositional prowess, the finesse that’s involved in Brahms is astounding.  It’s very profound, very deep, very intellectual and cerebral, and all the adjectives that are now used as pejoratives.  He’s terribly clever.  History has been very ironic.  The thought for a while was that Wagner was the man of the Nineteenth Century who looked into the future.  The truth is that Brahms did with his compositional craft.  Now the public, or the Brahms public, which should be fairly sizeable, no doubt enjoys and should enjoy this very beautiful surface of the music, and again no doubt, the marvelous virtuosity of the performance or playing.  So is that not an entertainment value?  Of course it is, and I think that it’s in a certain sense innocent, meaning it’s not their business to know how it’s all done.

BD:    Let me ask the balance question then.  Where is the balance between the entertainment value and the artistic achievement?

MP:    I think the great ideal was annunciated by Mozart once in a letter to his father, when speaking about a piano concerto.  He wrote that in this particular concerto there were many passages that would be of interest to the connoisseurs
meaning, presumably, the composer and the music thinkerbut as far as the listeners are concerned, they will not be distracted by these things at all because they will sound lovely.  That I suppose is the ideal balance.

BD:    Is this what makes a work of music
or any kind of artworkgreat, that it transcends several different levels?

MP:    I would certainly say yes in the same sense that we’re all familiar with the idea of Shakespeare entertaining the beer-swilling Elizabethans and the great poetic minds as well.  That, of course, is superb; that is perfection, and to some degree I think that many of our masters of the past accomplished that very well.  Those of us who study scores are always as stunned by the G Minor Symphony as an audience is, and loves it just as much.

BD:    You mentioned several of the great composers of history.  Do you feel that you are part of this lineage of music?

MP:    I???

BD:    You.

MP:    No, I don’t believe I am.  I wish I were.  I don’t think so.  I’m certainly not of the kind of importance that one attributes to the great masters.  No, alas.

BD:    Is this a lacking in you?

MP:    Oh, yes!  I’m very stupid.  [Laughs]  It’s certainly not their problem.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Is this something that you have been striving for?

MP:    Oh, I think so, yes.  I would have wished to be a much better composer than I am, but I kept writing my Congressman and nothing seemed to work.  I mean the Congressman didn’t write back.  [Much laughter]

BD:    If you were looking at yourself as your own student, what advice would you have for Mel Powell?

MP:    I would suggest that he continue to do what he’s been doing the last few years, which is concentrating more and more on his composition.  Of course, if I were a young student I would find it more and more difficult.  I’ve reached a point in my life, I suppose, where it’s one of the very few privileges of becoming venerable, where it’s possible for me to give more and more time to composition.  So I would simply advise myself, as I would others, to continue along those lines.

BD:    What advice do you have for the young composer coming along today?

powellMP:    I’m not bashful about giving prescriptives, especially since I’ve been at it for thirty years or so in my professorial chores.  I don’t envy them.  It’s a very difficult time for them for several reasons, but so far as a prescriptive is concerned I would urge them, or rather exhort them to put on blinders with respect to all the esthetic merchandising that surround them, and master first and foremost the very refractory demands of the craft of composition, the technical matters first of all.  Worry less about the expression of their enormous spirits and souls and much more about literacy and polish and ability to do whatever they’re capable of doing.  I would urge that upon them first of all.  The loss of a potent craftsmanship is immediately the loss of significant art in serious music.  I won’t say it for all the other arts, or even for certain aspects of music, but for serious music, for a composer, the mastery of technique is paramount.  Today it’s especially crucial because there are few criteria in the mainstream of society that can be invoked to measure what is valuable and what is not valuable.  It’s not as though one were living in a closed society where it is quite clear what a high musical art demanded.  Today it is perfectly possible to indulge in all sorts of sham, scam, and all sorts of nonsense, and there is no one there to complain.  You wouldn’t put up a shingle saying “I am an avant garde composer.”  [Both laugh]  I would warn the young mainly about that.

BD:    You say you don’t envy the young composers.  Why?

MP:    No, I don’t envy them because the smorgasbord that’s set before them is an overload.  It’s an excess, in a way, of having this approach, utterly discombobulating to them, disconcerting and confusing.  This may just be an old fellow chatting, but it looks to me in retrospect as though when I was a student and I worked with Hindemith there were fewer options.  One was either affiliated with those that embraced the neo-Viennese including Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, or those who were embraced by the so-called Neoclassicists such as Hindemith himself and the great composers Bartók and Stravinsky.  That was very little else.  But nowadays there is utter confusion and, worst of all, there is a total triumph of the torrents of populism to a far greater degree than there ever has been.  I imagine that could even be supported statistically, in terms of recording purchases and so forth.  This is the world of serious music, forgetting even serious new music, which alas, too many people are too willing to forget too readily!  For example, there is no discussion in our best literary periodicals.  There’s nothing of any significance of serious music.  When music is spoken of, even the expression “contemporary music” refers to an enormous stream of populism that’s taken hold, and almost has rid itself of anything except matinee idols like Lenny Bernstein or the super, mega-star tenors.  They are wonderful artists, but what I’m saying is that the world of serious music has really been pushed into a much smaller, little corner than it ever has, or conversely, pop music has commanded vaster terrain that it ever did.

BD:    Is this a good spreading of popular music, or is it like a cancerous growth out of control?

MP:    My dour, churlish personality leads me to vote for the latter.  I think it’s not going to work well in terms of the cultivation of the human spirit, the human intellect, the human outlook.

BD:    Then let me broach the subject of the middle ground, even if it is an artificiality, the so-called cross-over between the two.  Is this a good idea, or is this a mistake on the part of artists on both sides?

MP:    For me personally I think it’s foolish.  But then I was marked up by my Army experience when prune juice used to fall into the scrambled eggs because of the way the serving trays were built.  I really don’t care for that.  I like prune juice very much and I like scrambled eggs very much, but I prefer to separate them.

BD:    So you feel that the styles of music should be separated with a highly delineated line?

MP:    I feel that way.  I don’t really need to have maracas and tom-toms helping me to Mozart, or the Swingle Singers helping me to Bach.  I don’t require that.  On the other hand, I love the Swingle Singers.  I think they’re wonderful.  No, I don’t care much for that kind of mixing.  I think it tends to be pandering in most cases.  It’s usually a popularizing thrust, and those things border always on the cheapening; and they’re dangerous.  It’s not necessary.

BD:    Should the concert promoters still try to go after larger and larger audiences?

MP:    I don’t think so.  I think they’re better advised to go after bigger and better endowments and really do what they’re supposed to do, or what they do best, or what they should be.  Of course, you’re leading me on to prescriptives and I’m perfectly happy to provide them.  As a layman, I wouldn’t care to go to the concert hall and have Michael Jackson there helping Bruckner.  I don’t think any of that’s necessary.  Bruckner’s fine.  If I want Bruckner, I want Bruckner unadorned with other performing and that’s that.  If I want Michael Jackson, I go to another arena.

BD:    Should the average person on the street want unadorned Bruckner and unadorned Michael Jackson?

MP:     I don’t see why not.  It comes back to what we think of as crucial in education and exposure and all of that.   Basically it’s a matter of what gives you pleasure.  It’s hard for me; I guess I’m too sort of left liberal progressive with that kind of political outlook.  It’s hard for me to believe that a great mass of people enjoy what the great mass of TV producers provide for them exclusively.  [Both laugh]  I don’t know.  Well, maybe so, but if we were educated, if we had available a lot of things, I suspect it would mean much larger audiences.  But the idea for me is to purify, to keep things what they are and be patient and let people come to them.  Basically the support has to come from subsidy in any case, as far as I’m concerned.  The moment these poor institutions, these art institutions, have to go and hustle by virtue of what they are presenting in art, the ballgame is over because then they are competing with virtually anything and everything in show biz, and they’re not going to do well because the show biz people are very slick and very professional in what they do.  So that’s a mistake.  Eventually, if we are to have anything at all, we will do somewhat like as Europe does and we’ll have subsidy systems so that in one way or another, artists can survive doing comparatively non-negotiable work, or things that are not commodities.

BD:    Do you think that most serious composers should be relieved of the teaching responsibility, so that they can get on with the composing?

MP:    No.  I don’t think that’s necessary.  If the teaching responsibility imposes itself in such a way as to prevent a composer from working, then yes, I do think there should be some mitigation.  In my own case, I really don’t think I can blame anything on that, because actually I learned a great deal from teaching, and I’ve always found it very much a part of my own necessities.

BD:    This is something that I always like to ask composers.  Is musical composition something that really can be taught, or must it be innate within each young composer?

MP:    Certainly, I don’t think anyone would believe that musical composition can be taught in the sense of the artistic and the inventive and the fantastic.  All of those things which are the most important no one believes that could be taught.  It would be like anointing oneself as a god who could convey great, deep magical secrets.  We still know nothing at all about gifts and receive no popular approbation.  I used to say, “Nature is a fascist.  It tosses gifts around indiscriminately, and with no rhyme nor reason.”  There’s some documentation that Mozart wasn’t a very bright fellow, and look at what happened there!  I’m sure there are many other examples like that.  We know that Bruckner’s very naïve as a person, rather foolish.  Webern, in our century, was vulnerable to the Nazis for a while, not a particularly admirable accomplishment for a man of spirit or intellect.

BD:    So he allowed himself to be duped?

MP:    Presumably so.  And yet look at Webern.  The gift is something marvelous and magical, and we know nothing about it.  In that sense, no composition of course cannot be taught.  In every other sense it can.  One can go a long, long way toward very rational understanding of the materials that one works with.

BD:    Then we come back to another balance question.  Where is the balance between the inspiration and the technique?

MP:    To put it as simply as possible, one hopes that one has sufficient supply of both to make it work, to establish a work that brings good things to others.  I don’t think that a work that’s lacking totally in technical acumen, technical finesse, can do that, and I certainly don’t think a work that’s lacking in what we ordinarily call ideas and invention, fantasy can either.  So the balance is a prerequisite.  Those works that we all cherish
whether they’re new or oldare laden both with the most superb intellectual musical thought, and at the same time the most awe-inspiring invention and fantasy.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me come to the ideas of Mel Powell, specifically about his own music.  Have you basically enjoyed the performances of your music that you have heard over the years?

MP:    I’ve been fortunate, yes.  I’ve been fortunate in that good players have played.  Of course, occasionally, like everyone else, there has been performance that I would fuss about, but by and large what I’ve heard of my work seems to be done very well.  Of course, I also expect that it should be, because although I’m aware that some of it is difficult to play, nevertheless I take great care.  I’m very conscious of what I’m calling for, what I’m asking for from the player.

BD:    How much leeway do you allow the performer when he or she is reinterpreting your music?

MP:    I’m very conventional in that regard.  I try to under-instruct rather than over-instruct.  There are playwrights who run pages of parenthetical stage directions, and then the line you have to say is, “Hello, Charlie.”  I try to make richer lines than,
“Hello, Charlie,” and fewer instructions.  So the answer to the question would be that I am quite lenient.  I will say piano, and then I will not mark every note a different level, for example, though a good player, an expressive player, will probably play every note at a slightly different level rather than mechanically.  I love most of all what Alban Berg said, “Classics should be played as though they are new music and new music should be played as though it’s classic.”  That seems to me to be perfect, so I try in that way.  That’s what I meant by being conventional.  I try to mark my music pretty much as though an old, old composer, maybe in the nineteenth century, might have marked it.  I remember once a very good player wrote to me, and I think he got a little angry at my response.  You probably know the name, Paul Zukofsky.

BD:    Sure.

MP:    Wonderful violinist.  Magnificent musician.  Well, Zukofsky’s very interested in minute articulations
just how long does the ritardano mark ask you to be, and when you have the dash and the dot, the tenuto and the staccato, how long does take?  Anyway, he wrote to a lot of composers by then, and I wrote back to him in all sincerity and I said, “Dear Paul, when a player like you plays my work, I have no problems.  That’s the answer to the question.”  [Both laugh]  But if I have to explain every marking of expression to a player, then I know it’s a lost cause, you see.

BD:    You’re putting a lot of the responsibility on the performer, and assuming that if they can play it, if they can do it justice, then you’ll be happy with it.

MP:    Although happily it hasn’t happened too often, if they have no affinity for what I write I always urge them not to play the work.

BD:    So if they have too many questions then they just don’t understand it?

MP:    Yes.  Somewhere along the line a performer has to transfer to us a love of a work, a belief in it.  If that’s lacking, I don’t think it does any service
especially to unfamiliar musicto be played without persuasive performance.

BD:    Let me go the other direction.  Are there cases where the performer will discover things in your music that you didn’t even know you had put there?

MP:    I don’t think so.  My experience has been mainly that performers will sometimes say, “I think this goes a little better if we take time here.”  And I would agree when I hear them do it.  If that’s what you meant, in that case the answer would be yes.  Otherwise, no, not particularly.

powellBD:    This, of course, refers to live performances.  Let me move over to the recordings.  Are you basically pleased with what is on the flat pieces of plastic?

MP:    Yes, I’m pleased with the recordings that have been done.  I haven’t had that many recordings, but they’ve been done by fine performers — Beardsley,the Sequoia String Quartet and so on.  It’s good playing.  Recordings themselves sometimes cause a little problem.  They are fixed, and also there are certain kinds of works that maybe don’t work well on recording.  Unfortunately, I think I write some of them.

BD:    Have you marked in your scores that perhaps these works should not be set down on disc?

MP:    Interestingly, no, I haven’t, but I have balked at certain works when they were going to record them.  I recommended that they not do it and I talked them out of it.  That’s partly because there’s a certain kind of internal drama set forth, where maybe even the quietness and occasional articulations by silences almost require the hall, and the listener to be there and to be part of a live presentation.

BD:    You don’t feel that it’s cutting your own throat by not letting that work go to the home audience?

MP:    Oh, I don’t think so.  Video would be better.  There is something to the tension of certain kinds of writing that to me requires almost the visual or at least the presence there.  But there are only a few pieces like that.

BD:    This all comes back to what we were saying earlier about p
eople listening at home and then talking about surface noise rather than the music.

MP:    [Laughs]  Yes.  As a matter of fact, there’s a pretty interesting point about silence. When the public is listening at home, it’s not listening to the silence as an expressive silence.   It’s listening to it to measure whether the hi-fi is working well.  That’s not the way to listen.

BD:    Is there any hope of getting the home public away from the technical fascination and back to the artistic enjoyment?

MP:    In the relevant future, whatever that may be, I don’t think so really... and I’m not sure that’s too bad.  After all, the separation of so-called serious music from the public that supports concerts and so on is very severe, and maybe it’s all within reason.  I think maybe the entertainment values have been lost.  The other thing is that it looks to me as if we’re still in the age of amateurism.  It
’s some kind of narcissistic thing, where an audience likes to look at something or listen to something that it thinks it can do itself.  I suspect that’s the case.  Most of us were doing what I do... I guess not so many, but we are involved with a deep kind of professional virtuosity of sorts, and I suppose it’s not too inviting. 

BD:    Do you not want to be looked at as a virtuoso composer?

MP:    Yes.  By that I mean here’s someone who knows what he’s doing.  And there are not too many of us around.  [Laughs]  Isn’t that unkind?

BD:    Unkind, but perhaps true.

MP:    [Laughs]  The population is so enormous.  When Roosevelt was President
which takes us back to the forties — from that time to this the population has actually doubled.  We are over two hundred ten million now.  We were only at about a hundred million or so at that time.  I was reading some demography textbooks recently.  That’s astounding!  That’s an enormous public, and we still retain the idea that when we say everyone, we mean everyone.  But I don’t really mean everyone.  For instance, there’s a world of chess players.  I don’t play, but I think they’re fine in their little corner.  Then there are bridge aficionados who love the game, and I’m sure it has a lot of intellectual attraction, and they’re off in their corner.  Even among music people, there are those who like to go to the opera and argue about the merits of this or that soprano, and they would not be caught dead listening to Chopin.  On the other hand, there are people that only go to piano recitals, and a string quartet would bore them to tears.  So there are publics and publics, and I suppose even when I say serious new music, to what am I referring?  I’m really referring to a handful of composers, perhaps a half-dozen today, who are at work with things that interest me.  I don’t necessarily feel that that needs to be imposed on anyone.  It’s there and I think it’s invaluable, but if there are only fourteen people, then there are fourteen people and that’s that.

BD:    Aren’t you still out there trying to get that fifteenth person into the audience?

MP:    No.

BD:    Not at all???

MP:    Nope.  I don’t think so.  I can be quite faithful to the art and to myself and to my conscience, but I separate sociology and politics and all that from what I do.  In art I’m relentlessly, hopelessly an elitist, and nowhere else.  In the important matters
politics and sociology and economics and so onI’m very much more an egalitarian.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve written some things for voice.  Would you ever write an opera?

MP:    I now doubt it.  I had some plans to do one, but I think now that it would not be likely that I would give over the rest of the years I have on Earth to something which would never be produced, and certainly not in my lifetime.  That’s a little shabby of me to say, but I don’t care to do that.  If I felt there was even a chance of a decent production, even if I live to be eighty and tottered around
Verdi, after all, was very vigorous late in life — that would be fine, but I know better than that.  There simply is not the kind of tradition, or the available funds for the mounting of an opera.  I had actually worked on one for a number of years and there are parts of it around in my desk drawer, but I can’t give more to it than on this very impractical basis.

BD:    What do you say to the historian fifty years from now who is cleaning out your desk and comes across these pieces and wants to assemble them?

MP:    I hope I’m around, though I doubt that I will be.  I hope I am here fifty years from now, and I hope I can wave a finger at him and say, “See?  There should have been a subsidy.”  [Both laugh]  And he’d say, “Certainly, the world has lost the most beautiful C-sharp.”  No, I think the world will survive.  It’s quite true that for the halcyon days of opera, probably two or three major periods that come to mind.  One of them is certainly the time of Mozart, and the other is the late Nineteenth Century with Verdi in the south of Europe and Wagner in the north of Europe.  I am pretty certain that in all cases, and maybe even as early as Monteverdi, that the opera really did present the most enjoyable and awesome spectacle available.  That’s pretty tough when you’ve got The Untouchables running on the wide screen, and those music videos with all the effects.  That’s pretty tough to just stroll people in to see an elephant on stage.  [Both laugh]  So that works against it.  It’s very much a European tradition, of course.

BD:    Should the old operas then be transferred to the screen with all of the technical resources that implies? 

MP:    I don’t mind.  I don’t mind that.  That’s all right, but it’s that business of the electricity, of the light, like film in the theater.  There is something offered by being there, by not having an editor select what you could see.  I myself am really quite an opera buff, actually.  I enjoy it very much.  I weep and I have all kinds of marvelous times because it’s just the right amount of vulgarity which I seem to need.  It’s perfect.  It has the perfect amount of obviousness and silliness, things like that, and that’s very moving.

BD:    I like that,
Just the right amount of vulgarity.

MP:    Yes.  Just perfect.  Not too much, not too little.

BD:    Even if you will not write an opera, I assume that many people approach you to write something for them.  How do you decide which commissions or suggestions you will accept, and which you will decline?

MP:    Simply more or less impulse.  Usually I wish to write something that I have in mind, and the commissioning organization may go right ahead with that.  But if not, I ask myself if their suggestion interests me.  If someone asked me to write for three accordions and four saxophones, I’m afraid I would say no.  The medium is important to me, and if it seems interesting and I’m not — what is it the kids say?
— burned out on that particular thing.  I wouldn’t care to write a string quartet the moment I completed one.

BD:    When you’re working on a piece, do you go back and tinker with it a bit?

MP:    I tinker a lot, yes.

BD:    Then at what point do you know that you have finished tinkering with it and it’s ready to be sprung upon the world?

powellMP:    I’m thinking of an existential answer... when I’m finished!  [Both laugh]  When I’m working on a piece, I have a way of working that distinguishes between composition and invention.  First I try to compose and then I go to tinker.  I use the term tinkering more or less as equivalent to the term invention and refinement of invention.  Let’s say one creates a marvelous character who’s persuasive on stage, and then you might decide it would be elegant and symbolic if he had a mustache.  That’s inventing, but the character has to be there.  You can’t begin with the mustache, which is the way most people begin.  So that’s what I mean by tinkering.  But normally the overview of the composition is what I demand from myself before I really feel confident.  Stravinsky was once asked by Chaplin, “How do you know when a piece is finished?”  He replied,
Just before I begin.   [Both laugh]

BD:    Then it’s just the fine tuning?

MP:    Actually I have one final test, which I call walking through a piece.  What it actually amounts to is performing the piece, certainly not at the piano or anything, but conducting it, doing it in very real time, so as to come away from the micro-time that one works with at the desk.  Then really that final arbiter is probably nothing more than musical intuition.  You see if everything is flowing right or not flowing.  Then I am finished with it and I am finished fussing, and it goes out to the world with my prayers.

BD:    Once a piece is out in the world and has been performed
either successfully or notdo you ever go back and revise it?

MP:    Let me see...  Have I done that?  I’ve done revising before releasing it, but I can’t think of an occasion where that has been done later.  I can think of a few occasions where I wish I had done something a little better than I had done with a very tiny point, but sometimes composing amounts also to psychologizing acoustics, meaning do I seduce the ear?  Do I read the ear exactly where I want it to be?  On occasion I have made miscalculations, yes.

BD:    I was just wondering if future historians are ever going to go back and find an urtext that is different from the final version.

MP:    The kind of sketching and so on?  No, I think not.  Not in my case.  It’s almost the exact opposite with Boulez, who, as you know, is revising at all times.  And where does that get him?  I’ve talked with him.  We’re quite good friends.  One of the reasons he does that is because of his experience gained from performance.  So the revision is always in terms of something he just learned on stage, which I find very interesting.

BD:    Do you learn with every piece?

MP:    Oh, I think I do, yes, though I envy him and lack the experience
or the possibility of the experienceof conducting wonderful works with wonderful orchestras as Boulez has been able to do over the last fifteen years or so.

BD:    You are still a performer yourself?

MP:    No.  No, alas, not.  Well, I don’t know whether it’s alas.  How much wizardry can one keep up?  Having been a performer and having worked hard at it, I really take no pleasure in performing badly, and in order to perform well, one must do all those things needed, you know.  All the bromides are true.  You have to practice if you’re going to play.  It’s nice if you have the time or the inclination.  However I still start a day by playing Bach fugues or Brahms intermezzi or something like that, but no one’s allowed to hear me.  [Laughs]

BD:    That’s just for your pleasure?

MP:    Yes.

BD:    Is the act of composing pleasurable?

MP:    Often it is, often it is not.  I realize that’s an answer like Samuel Beckett gives.  Of course, and never.  [Laughs]  Let me put it in the most direct and vernacular way I know, which is that when it’s going well it is as pleasurable as anything I can conceive of.  Unfortunately, I think the balance is a little toward what I’m about to say.  That part of composition which is sort of tedious is copying.  It’s not composition, really, it’s just logistics and mechanics, although absolutely necessary.  That is no fun at all, at least not for me.  That’s like chewing on a towel or something, and I take no pleasure from that.  Unfortunately or fortunately
I don’t know whether I’m boasting or notwhen I put a pen or a pencil to music paper, I hear that little scratch and that mark it’s made.  I hear those notes and rhythms, and because there’s such an absurd disproportion in time, it takes maybe fifteen minutes to write what takes a quarter of a second to play.  Because of that, I find it very tedious and very bothersome.  That’s a part of the task I don’t enjoy at all.

BD:    That, as you say, is the mechanics.

MP:    Yes, the mechanical aspects of it.  And of course when other aspects — the more mystical stuff of invention and composition, all those other aspects that we all value — when those are not going well, I don’t think it’s very enjoyable.

BD:    Then the ultimate question becomes is it all worth it?

MP:    It must be.  Today one has to be pragmatic.  It must be because I do it, and I won’t tolerate being interrupted or doing anything else.  I wouldn’t consider it, so that almost answers itself in the most direct, practical way.

BD:    Do you have one project going at a time, or do you ever work on more than one thing?

MP:    I work on more than one at a time.

BD:    How do you keep them straight?

MP:    It’s very simple because they’re always very different.  I do that, actually, in order to refresh my own spirit.  I find especially the kind of thing that I do is very difficult and very demanding, and it’s as though the reservoir runs out and then one has to refill, so to speak.  I am not the most prolific composer in the world.  I tend to scrutinize what I do very carefully, and that can be enervating so much.  So as an antidote, for example, if I’m writing a piece for harpsichord, I will work at the same time on a piece for symphony orchestra.

BD:    Or brass?

MP:    Or brass, or something so that there is very little intersection there.  And I do find the refreshment that I’m seeking that way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about the particular joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

MP:    I think that it is the most refractory, complex instrument of all, primarily because the instrument is the human being and not an extension of the human being.  Also, to write for the voice requires the most cultivated musical intelligence and acuity of ear.  There is no hoodle-addle there.  [Laughs]

BD:    There’s no what???

powellMP:    It’s an old southern expression for nonsense or baloney.  There’s no hoodle-addle, no baloney.  You can’t just simply scrape the fiddles over the bridge or tap on this or make a funny noises for sound effects.  Of course you can, but it’s quickly exposed as folly.  But to write beautifully for the human voice means that you must know all that a composer can know, whether or not you do it intuitively.  I can look at one page of a contemporary composer’s score for voice and know more about his or her competencies, knowledge and ability, than if I look at their whole, big orchestral score of forty pages.

BD:    Is this something you demand of your students when you’re either examining them or auditioning them?

MP:    Yes, and always with the cautionary tale warning them that they may be beguiled into thinking that it’s a simple matter.  I remind them that after all it’s the one instrument that everyone can perform on, however badly.  But I do caution them that it is the most refractory.  Finally, when they study with me, it is only in the last six months or so that they work with me that I then turn to the setting for the voice.

BD:    Let me turn the question completely around.  What about the most non-human of instruments, namely the electronics?

MP:    In a way it’s like a recorder
everybody can do it, but it’s very difficult to do really well!  I have to confess it’s not of major interest to me, although I have done some pieces.  I was one of the early people working in analog studios years ago, and I still do write from time to time, but it’s not very interesting.  The only thing it can do superbly well is enormous complexities of tempo and structure.  Primarily it’s speeds running against one another with real precision.  Everything else it was supposed to do has now been exposed as fallacious.  For example, it was supposed to provide an infinity in the domain of spectrum in sound colors and timbres, but it can’t begin to approach the variety of the symphony orchestra.  The difference, let us say, between a muted tuba and a harmonic on the viola is a difference that has yet to be demonstrated in the electronic domain.  So there it is of no interest, but it is of great interest, as I see it, here in Los Angeles where we have a tawdry television station that plays dreadful, Grade C, scary movies.  They use electronic music of their own variety — you know, that kind of nonsense of reverberations and so on that’s pure folly.  That’s for children.

BD:    I would assume that there it would not be created for art but just for effect.

MP:    Yes, for effect.  I’ve noticed, by the way, that electronic music is very handsome with dance.  It seems to work very well, maybe because you have the complementation of the beautiful human bodies at work, being very human and then not being bothered by a bad orchestra in the pit, which is having a sort of atmosphere to take care of sound.  That it does very well.  The other thing, of course, is for a marvelous composer whose requirements are for the utmost rigorous precision.  I’m thinking of, say, Milton Babbitt; then it’s perfect.  It is perfect for certain aspects of his work that require enormous complexities in temporal structure.  The machines can do that because you are dealing with an utter abstraction.

BD:    If you’re dealing with these complexities that are too much for the human mind or the human pen to put down or the human person to perform, does it not become too much for the human ear to comprehend?

MP:    That’s a fascinating question, and I would approach it with great diffidence in attempting to answer it.  I think that the ears clearly are something held in common between what we conceive and what we perceive.  I imagine that was the implication in your question.

BD:    Yes.

MP:    It’s quite clear that is the case.  I’ve already done some experiments which would bring me to giggle because indeed, the moment we reach a certain kind of speed that no performer can produce, we hit an utterly different result from what we have heard.  That is a sound that is very, very much faster than things.  As a matter of fact, it fuses it into one sound.  After all, with sixteen or eighteen vibrations per second you’re at the sense of tone, practically.  So yes, there are many mysteries about that.  I am not certain just where the line is drawn.  I do know that much that can be honestly conceived by a composer apparently cannot yet be honestly performed and then perceived by audiences.  So there is a certain lag there as well.  But why shouldn’t there be a composer like myself who spends twenty-four hours a day
probably even when I’m sleepingthinking of these things and imagining them, and thinking about the interplay of various velocities and so forth?

BD:    So the idea should be preserved for someone later on who could perceive it?

MP:    Yes.  However, if indeed that extraordinary precision is sine qua non in temporal structuring in particular, then by all means the machine is ideal for that.  In certain works of Babbitt — not all of course — that does appear to be the case, and I think a composer like Milton should have available to him resources to carry out his conceptions.  In my own case, although I also call for some fairly hairy things to be done rhythmically, it’s the very difficulty or the tension in those temporal structures that, for me, endows them with their value.  Therefore I need the human being to get nervous about them.

BD:    Looking ahead, say a hundred years, when these very difficult things are so commonplace that they’re in the rudimentary books for the second-year student, does that change the outlook of your music?

MP:    I think the difficulties remain stylistically respectable.  By that I mean one can begin to teach them.  After a while, every fiddle player plays what in Beethoven’s time fiddle players were telling him couldn’t be played.  Even though they’ve now learned to do that, we still hear it historically, and the difficulty remains stylistically valid.  There are difficulties of expressivity as well.  Obviously, there is nothing shocking about anything today when we turn to hear Gesualdo, but if you don’t hear that music with some kind of historicity, then you’re missing out on a great, rich experience.  Then you will hear things being very difficult.  Not that any kid could go and do that today without knowing what he was doing, especially with some of those enharmonic changes, the chromatic moves that were made by Gesualdo that make your hair stand on end.  Then there is one other thing... are there not certain things that, so to speak, are born difficult and remain so?

BD:    Well, do you feel there are?

MP:    Thus far there’s some evidence that yes, there are.  Brahms used to apologize to his students by saying, “I mean it to come out easy, but it comes out very difficult.  I can’t help it.”  And yes, I think there’s a certain heaviness of spirit, a real difficulty there.  I don’t think that Finnegan’s Wake will ever be quite like Ellery Queen.  [Both laugh]  So there are some things that are elaborate and complex and probably will remain.  But your point is a very interesting one.  That question of when something seems to be unplayable is just like running the four-minute mile.  That used to be such an achievement and now it is apparently broken by people running in the marathon.

BD:    Exactly.  That’s the example I use all the time.  No one could do it, and now if you don’t do it you’re not in the race.

MP:    You’re not in the race, right.  It becomes your qualifying speed.  You’re quite right and we have examples of that.  So who knows?  I was talking with Boulez, as a matter of fact, about this very problem of seven against five against eleven, all these very complex rhythmic affairs.  He reminded me, by way of consolation — somewhat in line with your question — and said, “But you know, Mel, there are hot percussion players and they’re at IRCAM.  They’re coming to me in Europe who play these things as though they were two by two.”  So already there’s some indication that what you had implied, the fact that what is difficult today is comparatively manageable tomorrow.  Yes, there is plenty in this case of that as well.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve spent thirty years of your life teaching.  How has the teaching of music or composition changed over that time?

MP:    How has it changed?  Let’s see.  I have to think back.  Speaking very personally, of course, as with anyone who has been at something thirty years, I don’t think I’ve changed a great deal, but I’ve deepened my interest and deepened my knowledge of those handful of things that I do attend to.  Forgive the touch of perhaps churlishness in the reading of contemporary society, but I suspect that the most significant change has been in what becomes a common referential framework.  When I go back to my student days, references that Hindemith made were known to all.  There was a sort of consensual knowledge.  Today this is not so.  Whether that’s good or bad, I’m inclined to think it’s bad.  I think that education has been quite miserable over the last ten to fifteen years at the lower levels, and even at the university levels.  It is very poor.  People do not really know the traditions.  I’m sure it’s probably similar in literature and so on.  If you make a reference to The Magic Mountain and someone thinks you’re referring to a place that has roller coasters, you’re having a tough time dealing with German literature under those circumstances.

BD:    Then are you optimistic about the whole future of either society or music?

powellMP:    [Laughs]  I suppose one would infer that I’m not actually yippy and exuberant about it.  I don’t understand it at all, but there is something in me, and maybe I’m sort of like The Skin of Our Teeth.  There is something in me that believes.  I have no underlying rationale for it, but I do think that things will be all right.  I guess that’s as confident as I can be about optimism.  In the face of the world as it is today with the terrible strains politically, the ghastliness of nuclear missiles, the unthinkable, heinous, awfulness of AIDS and so on, it’s awfully difficult to be exactly buoyant, to run around saying, “Hooray for us!”  No.  This species obviously is in a difficult period.

BD:    [Trying to find hope somewhere]  But you think it’ll all work out?

MP:    Yes, I think it will somehow.  That’s why I cite Thornton Wilder’s wonderful play The Skin of Our Teeth.  Somehow I think we’ll get by for a long while.

BD:    [Laughs]  I hope so.

MP:    I like to think so, yes.  Maybe it was the way I was brought up, but it would be very difficult for me, and certainly it would be impossible if I knew that tomorrow morning we were going to be blasted off the face of the earth!  I don’t think I’d work that hard in my study tonight.

BD:    You’d relax your last night on earth.

MP:    I might have a beer or something.  Why worry about three jobs?

BD:    I don’t want to infer the wrong thing, but then do you not feel that music is really important in the cosmos?

MP:    It is as crucial as anything can possibly be, and I do, in fact, seriously speaking, deeply regret that the great society at large — here, there, elsewhere, Europe, Asia, wherever throughout the world — does not find more solace in music of a more elevated nature than for simply pandering to the common tastes.  I think that’s a great loss, and I feel sorry for my fellow human beings who do not have experienced it.  I mean all of that from a professional composer; from my insights I don’t mean that.  But it would be wonderful if they could take the pleasure that I can take from reading King Lear.  It’s so available to them.  There it is.  There are centuries of wonderful work and then there are the fantastic accomplishments of the Twentieth Century; such imagination as is being offered by composers in our time.  It’s unbelievable what marvels there are out there, and to miss out on that is so sad.  I simply feel they’re bereft.  So I think it’s terribly important, yes.  In the long run I’m very close to Whitehead’s view of things that what matters, really, is music, and everything else is nonsense. 

BD:    One last question.  As you approach your sixty-fifth birthday, what is the most surprising or pleasing thing that you have noted in the last forty or fifty years?

MP:    Let me see.  I’m not sure it’s pleasing, but what is surprising is that the language of non-tonality
which was developed early in this century, approximately 1908has remained refractory for such a profoundly long period, almost virtually the entire century.  That has been a surprise.  I didn’t expect everybody to be running around whistling Wozzeck or anything of that sort, but I did think that by now much of the so-called difficult music of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and others would have become more or less repertory pieces by now.  So I’m surprised and actually somewhat disappointed.  What I’m most pleased by is that I can arise early in the morning, go into my studio to work, and can salivate with as much or even more excitement about this or that phrase or this bit of music or that as I did forty years ago.  That is a very pleasant surprise.

BD:    That’s great!  I certainly hope for a lot more from your pen.

MP:    Well, thank you for that.

BD:    I want to thank you for being a composer.

MP:    Oh, what a lovely thing to say!  Thank you for saying that lovely thing.

BD:    Oh, it’s my pleasure.  Thank you so much for spending the time with me this evening.  I have learned a great deal, and I look forward to working with all this material, putting it on the air and presenting your music as often as I can.

MP:    I would like to mention that one of the ranking surprises has been the marvelously sensitive, high intelligence level about our discussion, and I thank you for that.

BD:    That’s a great complement coming from you.

MP:    I do in all candor, and I look forward, perhaps, to chatting with you again, and meeting you when you are here or if I’m there.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 29, 1987.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1988, 1993, and 1998.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

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.