Composer / Pianist  James  Primosch

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


When honoring him with its Goddard Lieberson Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters noted that “A rare economy of means and a strain of religious mysticism distinguish the music of James Primosch… Through articulate, transparent textures, he creates a wide range of musical emotion.”   The New Yorker stated that Primosch “scores with a sure, light hand” and critics for the New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Dallas Morning News have characterized his music as “impressive”, “striking”, “grandly romantic”, “stunning” and “very approachable”.

Primosch’s compositional voice encompasses a broad range of expressive types. His music can be intensely lyrical, as in the song cycle Holy the Firm (composed for Dawn Upshaw) or dazzlingly angular as in Secret Geometry for piano and electronic sound. His affection for jazz is reflected in works like the Piano Quintet, while his work as a church musician informs the many pieces in his catalog based on sacred songs or religious texts.

Primosch’s instrumental, vocal, and electronic works have been performed throughout the United States and in Europe by such ensembles as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Collage, the New York New Music Ensemble, and the Twentieth Century Consort. His Icons was played at the ISCM/League of Composers World Music Days in Hong Kong, and Dawn Upshaw included a song by Primosch in her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Commissioned works by Primosch have been premiered by the Chicago Symphony, the Albany Symphony, Speculum Musicae, the Cantata Singers, and pianist Lambert Orkis. Recently completed works include a Fromm Foundation commission for Collage New Music, and commissioned pieces for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and for Lyric Fest.

Among the honors he has received are a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, four prizes from the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters, a Regional Artists Fellowship to the American Academy in Rome, a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, the Stoeger Prize of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and a fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Center where he studied with John Harbison.  [Note that music of both Primosch and Harbison appear on the CD shown below.] Organizations commissioning Primosch include the Koussevitzky and Fromm Foundations, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, the Folger Consort, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the Barlow Endowment, and the Network for New Music.  In 1994 he served as composer-in-residence at the Marlboro Music Festival.  Recordings of thirty-five compositions by Primosch have appeared on the Albany, Azica, Bard, Bridge, CRI, Centaur, Innova, Navona, and New World labels.


Born in Cleveland, Ohio on October 29, 1956, James Primosch studied at Cleveland State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University.  He counts Mario Davidovsky, George Crumb and Richard Wernick among his principal teachers.

James Primosch is also active as a pianist, particularly in the realm of contemporary music.  He was a prizewinner at the Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in Rotterdam, and appears on recordings for New World, CRI, the Smithsonian Collection, and Crystal Records.  He has studied jazz piano and worked as a liturgical musician.

Since 1988 he served on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania.

James Primosch, composer, producer, and pianist, passed away on April 26, 2021, at the age of 64.

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

In January of 2002, the Chicago Symphony performed From a Book of Hours by James Primosch.  The soloist was soprano Lisa Saffer, and the conductor was Antonio Pappano.  Also on the concert was the Haydn Symphony #22, and the Shostakovich Tenth.  Primosch would also be commissioned by the CSO for Songs for Adam, which would be presented at the end of October of 2009, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, and sung by Brian Mulligan.  Also on that concert were Dumbarton Oaks of Stravinsky, and the Symphony #3 (Scottish) of Mendelssohn.
The evening before the first of three performances in 2002, the composer was gracious enough to allow me to visit him for an interview.  We spoke of many things, and as we were setting up to tape the conversation, the chit-chat was about his recordings...

Bruce Duffie:   Let’s just start right there.  How important is it for a composer to get his music on flat plastic?

James Primosch:  
Flat plastic is an all-inclusive term because that includes black vinyl, and compact disc, and mini disc, and a few other formats as well.

BD:   Being into the twenty-first century, are you surprised at all that I still have and use LPs?

Primosch:   I wasn’t really as surprised at that as I was just surprised at the breadth of your cognizance of rare items in the realm of black vinyl.  It’s a very important thing, because people are going to hear a recording who will not hear a live performance.  People have access to recordings.  It’s funny, though, because access is diminishing in some ways and increasing in other ways.

BD:   How so?

Primosch   It’s diminishing in that if you go to the Symphony Store, or to Tower Records a couple blocks from here, you can’t find any Primosch recordings right now.  But if you go to or one of the other firms on the web, you could punch in Primosch and come up with a handful of recordings.

BD:   Even Tower online has a couple.

Primosch   Probably so, even though you can’t see them in the store.  It is funny... in New York, I felt I had achieved a certain level of recognition because the Tower Records Stores, at least for a time, had a Primosch bin divider!  In our day and age, that means you’ve arrived.  However, there was nothing in it the last time I looked.

BD:   [Being optimistic]  That means the CDs had been purchased!

Primosch   [Being contrary]  That means it was ill-stocked, is how I choose to view it.  So there between Previn and Prokofiev was the Primosch bin divider.  It’s very important because, at least in most cases a composer who’s alive has a finger in the process of the discs being made.  Therefore, it’s more or less a document of how it should go.  There are compromises that are sometimes made, but I’ve been very fortunate with the recordings that have issued.  I’m really fairly happy with what’s transpired.

BD:   Let me pounce on that idea.  You say
how it should go.  Is there really just one way a piece should go?

Primosch:   [Laughs]  Okay, you got me there.  There are ways that it can go that are more desirable than other ways, and a composer can help make sure that it’s one of those ways.  At Penn, where I teach, they presented a concert recently where a quartet played the Rochberg Third Quartet.  I contacted George, who is a retired Penn faculty member, and told him about it some months ahead of time.  A recording of the Third Quartet had recently come out, without any consultation with George, and he was unhappy with that recording.  The tempi weren’t right, and he was not real happy with it.  So it can happen that a piece which is wrong will be out there.  They didn’t happen to consult with George.

BD:   But there are earlier recordings of that same quartet which he approved, so they may not have listened to those before making the new one.

Primosch:   You’re right, or they may not have agreed with it.  Or they may not have been cognizant enough to realize that what they were doing was at odds with the earlier recording.

BD:   Who’s right then?  If the performer discovers something, and the composer may or may not agree, who’s right?

Primosch:   There are going to be people who will hear this new recording, and feel that this group got it right even though George is pulling his hair about it.  It is demonstrably at odds with the older version, so
right’ and wrong may be the wrong terms to be using about such things.  Although I’m happy with the recordings that have been made of my music, I could imagine that there would be other interpretations that I would also welcome.  I’ve had various people do my music in live performance who have found different things, and that’s been a pleasure and a joy.  To some extent, it can be a measure of the richness of a piece that different groups are finding different things in it.

BD:   So there are lots of right ways and maybe even more almost-right ways?

Primosch:   Let’s just say there are different ways, rather than right and wrong.  Which of your children is right?  They’re not right or wrong.  Each is a beautiful child.  However, there are things that can be demonstrably wrong, where people don’t play anywhere near the ballpark of the tempos or rhythms.

BD:   Are there times when you listen to a piece and you think,
“That’s a great idea.  I never thought of it.”

Primosch:   I’ll tell you about one that just happened today with the Chicago Symphony.  Tony Pappano convinced me that a little tiny gesture in the third movement of my piece, which I had written pizzicato [plucked strings], should be arco [played with the bow].  Everybody sighed with relief after they tried it arco.  The singer was pleased because the little musical gesture before she comes in really sets her up in a way that the pizzicato couldn’t in that particular context.

BD:   Now is it going to be changed in the printed score, or is it yet to be actually engraved?

Primosch:   There’s a whole question about what
engraving means in this day and age.  The score that Tony Pappano conducts from is computer engraved.

BD:   Then it’s just a search, and find-and-replace, and it’s done?

Primosch:   It
s not quite that easy.  All the pizzicatos would be replaced by arcos that way.

BD:   OK, just find the one, and make the change.

Primosch:   Yes, then it
s relatively easily altered.  But there is a whole discussion of the question of what does publication mean, and what does engraving mean.  Strictly speaking, this piece is not yet published.  I anticipate that it will likely be accepted by Theodore Presser, my publisher, and it will be available through them.
BD:   Is it right that you hear it in performance before they actually do publish it?

Primosch:   That’s ideal, because there will be corrections and changes made in the score before it would be available through Presser.

BD:   Are your scores packed with lots of ideas and directions, or are they fairly free to let the performers explore and create their own ideas?

Primosch:   I would say somewhere in the middle ground.  If you think of a composer like Don Martino, there’s a wonderful array of Italian verbiage that’s deployed to inspire the performer.  I’ve played Don’s music, and I needed an Italian dictionary.  Once I looked up all the words, it truly was inspiring, and it wasn’t an obstacle.  There are also pieces that are more reticent, so to speak.  My pieces are neither extreme in terms of being under or over.

BD:   I just wondered how much you trust in your performers.

Primosch:   You have to trust them totally no matter how much you put in the score.

BD:   You are also a performer of your own music and others’ music.  Do you approach those two musics differently?

Primosch:   If I know I’m going to be playing something, I don’t make it too difficult.  [Both laugh]  That’s one thing I’ll be aware of.  I wish that I had made some of those parts even easier in retrospect...  But all kidding aside, it’s not terribly different.  There might be less of a gap with my own music between the conception and the realization.  For example, I accompanied a friend, a wonderful soprano named Christine Schadeberg, in a voice and piano version of the Mirabai Songs of Harbison.  She had coached the songs with John and was able to convey to me a few things that he had mentioned, which were very insightful, and I would not have gotten from the score alone.  Not that I would have done anything egregiously wrong, but it was what he’d mentioned, and it helped get the sound he had in mind.  Only with those hints was I getting closer to his conception, though I’m not sure that he could have written anything in the score that would have conveyed it either.  With my own pieces, the gap was only my technical limitations as a pianist.  The gap between my mental conception as a composer and my mental conception as a pianist was relatively small, because those two people are the same people.

BD:   Did they walk all over each other, or did they walk hand in hand?

Primosch:   It’s pretty much hand in hand, although the composer tends to think that things are going to be practical that the pianist finds are not as practical as the composer thought.

BD:   Are there times you have to change it to make it practical?

Primosch:   I’ve been able to learn all my own music.

BD:   What about when others play it?  Do they ever complain to you?

Primosch:   Others are usually better pianists than I am.  Actually, the problems are different, so the issues become different.  It
s nothing terribly major, but I seem to have slightly largish hands, and a slightly larger than average reach, so sometimes a pianist who will say to me that a stretch is awkward, or a voicing of a chord feels awkward to them.  These are very wonderful pianists who could do things I could never hope to do.  So there have been a few things like that, but generally pianists have found things to be alright.  There’s one thing, though, that was interesting.  Whenever I feel I’ve got things worked out for a figure that’s divided between the hands, or when the hands need to cross, pianists find their own solutions.  At first I felt that I should labor to figure out what would be the most practical thing, and then it will be all figured out.  Well, they figured it out themselves.

BD:   So your job is to put down what you want to hear, and their job is to make it sound the way you want to hear it.  You don’t care what it looks like.

Primosch:   Right.  Cosmetically or choreographically, I don’t care what they look like, or even what I think it should sound like.  I don’t mean to get overly mysterious, but it’s more about what the music needs, which might even be bigger than what my little imagination thought it could be.  Case in point is that arco versus pizzicato this morning.

BD:   When you’re sitting at your desk with the piece of music as it is unfolding, is your primary responsibility to make sure the music gets whatever it needs?

Primosch:   My responsibility is to pay attention, and to be present to the piece as it’s unfolding.  I give it what it needs, and let it be what it needs to be.  I give it the time it needs to be what it needs to be, and have patience not to let myself fall into the convenient, unless that’s the right thing.  It’s a very difficult thing to know when you’re doing something because it’s the right thing, or when you’re doing something because it’s the easy thing.  You must be true to yourself, or true to the piece, and know when are you just falling into the habit.

BD:   Are you at all in control of where the piece goes?

Primosch:   Yes and no.

BD:   More yes than no, or does that change from piece to piece?

Primosch:   It changes from moment to moment in the same piece.  Authors talk about how plot lines take them places they didn’t expect, and characters do things they didn’t know they were going to do.  Musical pieces do that as well.  A piece of mine from a number of years ago
[Icons] a fifteen-minute work for clarinet, piano, and tapewas supposed to be two short five-minute movements, and it turned into one movement of almost fifteen-minutes.  That only became apparent in the process of working on it, and knowing what needed to continue, and needed to be spun out more.  The consequences had to be realized.  It wasn’t two movements, but a single movement.


BD:   The piece that you’ve done for the Chicago Symphony has a vocal part.  You’ve written a number of pieces for voice and for chorus, so tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice.

Primosch:   The joys are immense.  You’re talking about an idiom.  First of all, there’s something primordial about the vocal idiom.  There’s an old electronic music textbook that we used as undergraduates many years ago, and the first words in the book are
First, we sang’.  What that author was talking about was providing a context for the evolution of electronic media, but that phrase is so resonant.  There’s an organization called Chorus America which has a radio program, and they’re proud to call the program The First Art.  With pop music, though not exclusively, but it’s the voice that people are mostly attending to.  In opera, again not exclusively, but people are mostly attending to the voice.  This was the tradition for so long.  Our earliest music in the Western tradition is not piano sonatas.  You’re in touch with that tradition when you’re in touch with the voice.  You’re in touch with that immediacy.  Our vocal soloist here in Chicago is Lisa Saffer, who will be walking on stage empty-handed.  There will be nothing up her sleeve.  She’s not going to have a reed or a bow or any intermediary.  She’ll be there, and she will take a breath to set the air in motion.  There’s an immediacy there which is quite magical.
BD:   Then is the text imposed on it, or does the text become part of it?

Primosch:   If we’re firing on all cylinders
and by ‘we’ I mean the composer, the poet, the orchestra, the singer, everybodyit’s all integrated.  It’s not that anything’s imposed.  I prefer to speak of an integration.  To answer your earlier question, there are magical things about the voice.  The sorrows of it have more to do with the technical things about it, the frailties of the voice.

BD:   Are there times you wish the singers could just change the mechanism?

Primosch:   Instruments are temperamental as well, but pianos don’t get the flu.  [Both laugh]  I’ve played a few pianos with influenza myself.  There is no great secret about this, but Saffer is not the soprano who was originally slated for this performance.  The originally announced one withdrew because of illness.

BD:   So you have a person singing a brand new piece who may or may not have enough time to learn it and get it into their psyche?

Primosch:   In this case, we have an extraordinary soprano.  You would not know she’d had only a few weeks.  This is going to be an extraordinary performance.  I feel very fortunate.  She’s wonderful.  I feel very lucky.  There are always special concerns with writing for any musical medium, but there are certain things that you just need to be aware of for the voice that need to be attended to.  That’s no different from any other medium.  I can’t really say it is a special thing for the voice.

BD:   You seem to gravitate toward vocal pieces quite a bit.

Primosch:   [Thinks a moment]  I’d have to kind of go through the list and count, but there have been a fair number of vocal pieces.  Part of that is because I’ve worked as a church musician.  For example, I have a series of motets I’ve done for Emmanuel Church in Boston.  They’re going to do two this season.

BD:   Is there a spiritual quality about the church pieces?

Primosch:   Yes, inevitably.

BD:   Does that spirituality then infect or impose itself on other pieces with or without text?

Primosch:   There’s very much a spiritual dimension to my work.  It’s partly an attempt to make a connection with these different art worlds.  I
ve worked as a church musician since I was a teenager, and I had a life as a church musician which has continued off and on to this day.  I still help out with my parish in Philadelphia on occasion.  After a time, I started to have a life as a composer of concert music, and the two seemed rather separate to an extent.  In the early ’90s, I tried to find ways that the two could have a rapprochement.  Chris Schadeberg asked me for some songs for a recital at Town Hall in New York, and she asked for folk song arrangements.  I wondered what I was going to do because I was not going to arrange Puff the Magic Dragon.  [Laughs]  Then it dawned on me that what I could do was arrange some tunes that I knew through my church work.  So what she got was a set of three sacred songs which are arrangements for voice and piano with plainchant melodies.

BD:   What a nice solution.

Primosch:   So there was a coming together and integrating of musics I came to know through my church work with my concert work, and that opened a door for me.  Subsequently, I wrote a series of instrumental pieces which employ old sacred melodies.  The Second Quartet is based on the hymn tune Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.  In three of the movements of the sextet for the New York New Music Ensemble, Sacra Conversazione, there are sacred melodies which are the basis of the piece.  There are also a couple of organ pieces which employ sacred melodies.

BD:   [Wistfully]  There’s a certain irony about a musician doing a work called Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.

Primosch:   It’s funny... you’d think there’d be a grand pause in the score, right?  There would be the first phrase, and then we should all just go home.  [Both laugh]  But we can evoke a silence.  Stockhausen has a lovely phrase.  He speaks of
colored silences in his music.  Then, if you put that together with Rochberg talking about how in making music all we’re doing is coloring the air, what we’re talking about is a kind of a silence that music can create.  Its a situation where there’s not a literal silence in the sense of the absence of sound, but a spiritual silence, which is perhaps more of the essence of that hymn text.

BD:   It it does cause you to stop and think.

Primosch:   Yes, which we all could use a little more of.

BD:   Do you want your music to cause people to stop and think?

Primosch:   Oh, sure.  It’s got to be a place to stop and think, as well as a place to be carried along without stopping, without being able to stop.  There are moments when both of those ideas are apropos.  Also, the thinking sometimes can be after the applause has ended.  You have that experience with some people’s music.  The resonance extends far beyond the concert.  You suddenly realize you’re thinking about it the next day.  I remember hearing Into Eclipse by Stephen Albert.  I remember waking up with this hair-raising high tenor note in my head, and David Gordon was singing it.  That piece was resonating in my consciousness beyond the frame of the concert hall.  There’s something to be said for a piece that does that.  There are pieces that wow us in the hall, and we’re cheering enthusiastically.  But sometimes pieces come and go, and we’re on to the next thing the next day.  Maybe the stronger piece is the one that resonates beyond, so the thinking is happening in the piece and outside the piece as well.

BD:   Do you want your piece to have an immediate impact, or to resonate the next day?

Primosch:   Ideally, I’d love for it to be both.  I’m greedy.

BD:   We’re dancing around it, so let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Primosch:   [Smiles]  I hope you were being playful when you said
the real easy question.  [Thinks a moment]  There’s going to be different purposes in different contexts, and different purposes for different musicians.  I make music in different contexts, so I can’t give one answer that’s appropriate for all contexts.  But in the context that we’re speaking of, which is the highest aiming, most caloric context that we can think of, it’s to give praise to the Creator.  That’s the point.
BD:   [Quoting Psalm 96]  Sing unto the Lord a new song?

Primosch:   I can’t put it much better than that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience when you’re sitting all alone at your desk?

Primosch:   If I may quibble with the image you’ve created, metaphorically at least, I’m not alone at the desk.  First of all, my various selves are there, including myself as composer of previous pieces and of pieces I
’ve yet to imagine, myself as performer, and myself as audience member.  I go to concerts.  I like to listen to music.  So my various selves are there, and my composerly colleagues, living and dead, are there in the room with me.

BD:   It sounds like it
s getting a bit crowded.

Primosch:   Well, it’s a big room, and you have to make room.  My performers are also there if I know about them.  So there are a lot of friends who are quietly watching and encouraging.

BD:   Are they pleased?

Primosch:   Sometimes, but sometimes I’m ashamed or fearful to ask if they’re pleased.  Sometimes you clear them out of the room.  You have to ask them to be so kind as to step out to make a little more room because you need to wrestle some notes to the ground.  Maybe it ain’t going to be pretty, so we need to be alone for a moment.  But o
f course I think of the audience, but I’m not thinking of them in the sense of what I can do to maximize the numbers.  I wouldn’t be in this particular art world if that was my goal, or if that was the criteria.  It’s an audience, but it’s an idealized audience.  Basically we hope for sympathetic listeners.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Would you be unhappy if all of a sudden you had a few million sympathetic listeners?

Primosch:   [Smiles]  I wouldn’t be unhappy.  It would be a surprise, but I wouldn’t be unhappy about it.  If I’m being realistic, I will recognize that I am many selves, and I participate in more than one art world.  So, there are going to be different things that have different meanings for different situations.  When I do a Psalm setting that’s intended for my congregation to sing, and which is written in a relatively pop-ish idiom, I will have several hundred people singing and loving it at Sunday worship, so I try to craft that as well as I can.  That’s one art world.  Then, when I tried to do a piece for the Chicago Symphony, I made sure that it was right for one of the world’s great orchestras, and, in this case, a soprano of comparable caliber.  So I used an idiom I felt would be appropriate.  There’s something nice about having a certain flexibility of idiom.

BD:   You get asked to do a lot of pieces.  Your church asks you, the Chicago Symphony asks you, a string quartet asks you, a soprano asks you... how do you decide whether you’ll do each piece or not?

Primosch:   Lately my situation has been such that I get asked about as much as I can say yes to.  There have been a few situations where I have to say no, and I have had to turn down a few things.  It’s first come, first served, so to speak.  At best, I can do a few pieces a year.

BD:   Without being specific, are there times that you get asked for a piece and you just don’t want to do it, or feel you
re not capable of coming up with something that has been specifically asked?

Primosch:   I haven’t been blessed with that circumstance just yet.  [Muses]  Perhaps a bassoon quartet...  Nothing against the bassoon, but it just came into my mind.  [Thinks a moment]  I volunteered to write a piece for 44 pianos, each played by two pianists.  The situation was for the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia which was commemorating its 88th anniversary, and they were going to do a monster piano concert.  They needed every pianist in town, and I was called on to play 14th piano.  When I got the letter inviting me to play, I called up the director of the school, who was also a composer, and I said,
You’ve got to let me write a concert-opener for this!  He was game enough, and said OK.  So I have a piece in the catalog for 44 pianos, and a hundred and seventy-six hands.  I called it Homage to Gottschalk.

BD:   Where was it done?  Where could you put 44 pianos?

Primosch:   In what had been the roundhouse of the Reading Railroad, which is now renovated as a big ballroom for the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

BD:   Is that a piece that you hope will get played every 25 years or so?

Primosch:   I hope to be able to make it into something more realistic someday.  It might be a movement of a piano concerto.

BD:   You could do your own recording by overdubbing it 88 times.

Primosch:   Now there’s a thought!  [Both laugh]  It was actually a great thing, and I was glad I did it, but after the first 15 or 16 pianos, it didn’t make that much difference.  The best thing about that project was the video.  It looked a bit like the last scene of the Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the ark is in this warehouse somewhere, and the camera pans back and back and back and back and back and back.

BD:   Oh, yes.   They’re putting it into a storage place, and it will never be found again.

Primosch:   Right.  The video starts at piano one, and the camera pulls back slowly for about two and a half minutes.  Your jaw drops as you realize the dimensions of the scene before your eyes.  It’s like the 80-trombone piece [Orbits] by Henry Brant.

BD:   I interviewed Henry Brant, so I’ve got a couple of his spatial pieces.  They don’t work on record...

Primosch:   ...but still it
s just a great idea.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   [Noting that he is 45 years old]  Are you pleased at where you are at this point in your career?

Primosch:   [Thinks a moment]  I’ve been very fortunate in many ways.  I count my blessings, and count myself lucky.  I am deeply dissatisfied as well.  It’s probably typical of any artist.  There’s a lot of things to be grateful for, and there’s a lot of things that one wishes were a little different.


BD:   You’re teaching at Penn?

Primosch:   Yes, the University of Pennsylvania.

BD:   Do you get enough time to compose along with your teaching load?

Primosch:   Penn is a research university, and my composing is my research, so the teaching load is not terribly onerous.  I have colleagues who have double the teaching load I have, and there are other ways in which the university is supportive.  So as day jobs go, it’s about as nice as you can hope for.

BD:   Are you teaching composition or theory or other subjects?

Primosch:   It
s a blend of things.  This semester, I meet a class for introductory theory on the undergraduate level, so its the rudiments of notation.  From there I meet a grad class for analysis of 20th century music.

BD:   Will you include some music of yours?

Primosch:   Probably not.

BD:   [Mildly disappointed]  Why?

Primosch:   Because there’s so much better stuff to look at.

BD:   [With a wink]  I bet someone who’s looking for an A, brings one of your scores.
Primosch:   [Smiles]  I don’t think that’s quite appropriate.  It’s not false modesty.  There’s a lot of music that people have to be made aware of, and we don’t need to include my material.  However, I’ve sometimes presented my own work in class rather than have a student prepare a report.  If I have a piece coming up, I’ve talked about it in class, or in a colloquium context outside of class.  But for analysis of 20th century music, we’re going to look at the classic modernist masters.  One thing I’m going to do in the class is try to look at some issues that go across the century.  You wouldn’t think that there are certain little technical things that you could trace in Webern, Lutosławski, and Carter.  These are three names you wouldn’t necessarily bracket, but there are certain technical things that they do that I would like to call to the class’s attention.  We’ll be talking about fixed registers for pitches, which are things you find in the work of all three of those gentlemen.  I’m also going to talk about symmetries, and Webern comes up again, but this time with John Harbison.  So this particular semester we’re going to try looking at a few things that cut across the century.  Sometimes we divvy it up from a pre-World War II, post-World War II vantage point, but I’m interested in seeing how we can look across the century a little bit.

BD:   We seem to have made a huge shift right after World War II that remained for maybe 20 years, and then gradually drifted back a little bit.

Primosch:   Bernard Rands used an elegant term when I was having dinner with him tonight.  He talked about the European avant-garde imperative, and how that’s not the same kind of imperative for Americans.  I don’t think it’s genuinely true, but there’s something different at play for us as Americans.

BD:   Is that a good thing?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Benjamin Lees, and Libby Larsen.]

Primosch:   If it yields good work, it’s a good thing.  I’ll leave it to you to decide.  This was in the context of Augusta Read Thomas talking about hearing some echoes of Verdi and Wagner in my songs.  The idea came up, and they asked if I was OK with it, and I said I was.  Bernard talked about how the avant-garde imperative for a certain generation in Europe wanted to disconnect from that past.  To me, it’s a similar imperative, but what it means in our American context is that ironically we’re turning towards that tradition.  It may have been the generation of Boulez and Stockhausen which may have wanted to annihilate memory.  But in a context of an American culture that already annihilates memory, engaging memory may be the imperative for the American composer.  The case can also be made that the European tradition is a European-American tradition, if you think about the physical relocation of Europeans to these shores in the context of the war.

BD:   So now you’re teaching some history-type courses, and theory, but you’re also working with composers?

Primosch:   I will take students for individual composition lessons one on one.

BD:   Again, without being specific, are you pleased with what you see coming off their pages or being put onto their pages?

Primosch:   I’m fortunate to work with some very talented students.  We have a strong program at Penn, and I’m honored to be following in the footsteps of some remarkable composers.  In general, I and my colleagues at other institutions are finding that the pool is a little smaller than it has been in the recent past.  I’ve heard this from people at other institutions of comparable stature.  They say that the number of applicants is not as great as it was at one time.

BD:   I hate to repeat myself, but is that a good thing?

Primosch:   I don’t know.  It’s different.  I don’t know what it means exactly.  If folks are applying to an M.B.A. program who would be applying to Ph.D. and D.M.A. programs instead, I don’t know.

BD:   I’m not so much concerned with that.  I’m more concerned with the potential saturation of composers.

Primosch:   Well, we’re already saturated no matter what the application.  There’s a heck of a lot of people calling themselves composers, so whether that’s a good or bad thing, it’s hard to say.  Would it be better if there were fewer, or would it be better if there were more?  It’s a complicated question, and I’m not sure I’m able to answer.

BD:   What advice do you have for the up-and-coming composer?

Primosch:   Listen a lot.  Listen widely.  If you play an instrument or sing, keep up that connection with making music, and engage as much music as you can through your playing and/or singing.  Recognize that if composing is something to which you are called, it’s really one of the most remarkable disciplines that humanity has come up with.  It’s a considerable blessing and challenge.

BD:   What advice do you have for performers of your music, or others

Primosch:   I would invite them to be curious, and encourage them to recognize that their art will only be enriched by their engagement with the art of their time.  Sometimes it seems like it’s a distraction from the focus that performers have.  Yet if the focus can be broadened a bit, it can generally mean an enrichment of that performing artist.  There might be many artists that you admire who don’t have that much of an engagement with new music, but a great many of the ones you admire do have an engagement of one sort or another, and who find a way to engage with music that is new.  There’s so much of a mentality of hewing to a particular model that excludes new music.  It depends on the institution, but some conservatories can be places where people engage the new.  In some situations, some institutions are going to be places where people eschew the new.  Obviously, I think the former is a healthier situation.

BD:   Now the third part of the triangle.  What advice do you have for the audience?

Primosch:   To listen to music the way you would attend to a lover.  Go passionately with everything you have, with openness, with attention, with mindfulness, and you will be repaid.

BD:   In the end, is it all worth it for you?

Primosch:   You’re asking an artist in the up part of a manic-depressive cycle, which is to say in the midst of a set of performances of a big piece by a brilliant orchestra and a wonderful soloist.  So from this vantage point, it feels worth it, yes.

BD:   Hopefully, there are a lot more ups than downs.

Primosch:   You can’t live on the mountaintop all the time, but one can hope to be afforded opportunities to go mountain climbing often.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer, and thank you for bringing your music to Chicago.

Primosch:   It
s a pleasure to be here.   Thank you so much.



See my interviews with Marilyn Shrude, Samuel Adler, and Donald Erb



© 2002 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 9, 2002.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following April, and again in 2004 and 2018.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.

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

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

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.