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
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
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 . . . . .
May I speak with Mel Powell, please?
BD: This is
Bruce Duffie in Chicago.
yes. You’re right on time.
BD: How are
Fine. And you?
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.
[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.
Yes. There were two on and two
out when I left it to make this call, but I’d much rather talk to you
BD: How are
things in California?
calm and fairly serene.
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
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
brethren, your colleagues, determine whether you belong to the guild or
BD: In music,
who should determine
that — fellow performers or the audience or the
MP: You mean
BD: Yes, or
whether you should even be around?
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.
taken aback] Really???
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
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
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
mathematics and the other was music. So that’s one view of
what the rank of music is.
BD: Those two
— music and mathematics — so often go together.
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
we’re addressing whatever is speaking to us. There are
publics and publics is all I meant to acknowledge.
you’re writing a piece of music, for
what public are you writing?
MP: I’m very
severe. I’m a terribly severe
audience, a terribly severe critic. Sometimes I wish to borrow
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
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
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
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
thinker — but 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 artwork — great, that it transcends
several different levels?
MP: I would
certainly say yes in the same sense that we’re all familiar with the
Shakespeare entertaining the beer-swilling Elizabethans and the great
poetic minds as well. That, of course, is superb; that is
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.
mentioned several of the great composers
of history. Do you feel that you are part of this lineage
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?
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
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
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.
advice do you have for the young composer
coming along today?
MP: I’m not bashful
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
most serious composers should be relieved of the teaching
responsibility, so that they can get on with the composing?
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
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
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
BD: So he
allowed himself to be duped?
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
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
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 old — are 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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?
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 music — to be played without
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
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
answer would be yes. Otherwise, no, not particularly.
BD: 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
Interestingly, no, I haven’t, but I have balked
at certain works when they were going to record them. I
that they not do it and I talked them out of it. That’s partly
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
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
BD: This all
back to what we were saying earlier about people
listening at home and then talking about surface noise rather than the
[Laughs] Yes. As a matter of fact, there’s a pretty
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
BD: Do you
not want to be looked at as a virtuoso
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?
but perhaps true.
[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
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
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.
you still out there trying to get that
fifteenth person into the audience?
BD: Not at
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
sociology and economics and so on — I’m very
much more an egalitarian.
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
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
that particular thing. I wouldn’t care to write a string quartet
the moment I completed one.
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
MP: I’m thinking of
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
what I demand from myself before I really feel confident.
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?
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.
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 not
— do you ever go back and
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 —
possibility of the experience — of 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?
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
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]
just for your pleasure?
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 not — when 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
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
BD: Then the
ultimate question becomes is it all
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
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
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
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
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]
MP: It’s an old
southern expression for
nonsense or baloney. There’s no hoodle-addle, no baloney.
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
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
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
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
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
temporal structure. The machines can do that because you are
dealing with an utter
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.
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
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
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
sleeping — thinking 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?
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.
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
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
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
used to apologize to his students by saying, “I mean it to come out
but it comes out very difficult. I can’t help it.” And yes,
I think there’s a certain heaviness of spirit, a
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
literature under those circumstances.
BD: Then are
you optimistic about
the whole future of either society or music?
MP: [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.
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
[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.
relax your last night on earth.
MP: I might
have a beer or something. Why worry about three jobs?
BD: I don’t
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
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
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
of non-tonality — which was developed early in
this century, approximately 1908 — has
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
difficult music of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and others would have
more or less repertory pieces by now. So I’m surprised and
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
that as I did forty years ago. That is a very pleasant surprise.
certainly hope for a lot more from your pen.
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
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
- - - - - - - - -
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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.
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
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.