Composer / Percussionist  Marta  Ptaszyńska

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Marta Ptaszyńska (born July 29, 1943) has been described as "one of the best known Polish woman composers" as well as "a virtuoso percussionist specializing in performances of contemporary music"

In her native Poland, Ptaszyńska studied composition at the Academies of Music, both in Warsaw and in Poznan. Also, she worked privately with Witold Lutosławski, who later became her mentor. As a French Government’s grant recipient, she studied in the early seventies with Nadia Boulanger, and attended Olivier Messiaen’s analysis classes at the Paris Conservatory. In 1974, she received an Artist Diploma Degree in Percussion Performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Cleveland, where she worked with Cloyd Duff, Richard Weiner, and Donald Erb.

She has been a professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago since 1998.  In 2005 she was named the Helen B. & Frank L. Sulzberger Professor of Music and the Humanities. Ptaszyńska is an internationally known composer. Her music has been performed around the world at many international festivals, including ISCM World Music Days, the Warsaw Autumn International Festivals, the Salzburg Festival, the Schleswig- Holstein Music Festival, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the Prix Futura in Berlin, and many others. She has received commissions from major orchestras and opera houses including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, the Polish Chamber Orchestra, the Sinfonia Varsovia, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the National Opera in Poland. Her first opera, Oscar of Alva, in 6 scenes (1971-72, rev. 1986; libretto after Lord G. Byron), received the Award of the Polish Television Broadcasting Co. and was presented in 1989 at the Television Opera Festival in Salzburg, Austria. Her opera for children, Mister Marimba, (libretto: Agnieszka Osiecka), has enjoyed phenomenal success with 114 performances over eight seasons at the National Opera in Warsaw, which in 2008 premiered her second opera Magic Doremik, (2006-2007; libretto after Gianni Rodari). Her newest opera, The Lovers from the Valldemosa's Cloister, was commissioned for the Chopin Bicentennial and was premiered in December 2010 by the Grand Opera Theatre in Łódź, Poland.

She is the composer of such well known works as the Holocaust Memorial Cantata, performed several times under the baton of Lord Yehudi Menuhin, Concerto for Marimba, Winter’s Tale, Sonnetsto Orpheus, Moon Flowers, Mosaics for string quartet (2002), Trois visions de l'arc-en-ciel for clarinet, violin, viola, cello, percussion & piano (2008), and Street Music for percussion orchestra of 70 players, (2008) as well as other popular compositions for solo percussion (Siderals, Graffito, Spider Walk, Space Model, Letter to the Sun). Ptaszyńska has been honored with many prizes and awards, including the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Union of Polish Composers, the 2010 Simon Guggenheim Award, the Special Award given by the Minister of Culture of Poland for Outstanding Production for her opera on Chopin premiered by the Grand Opera Theatre in Łódź, the 2006 Benjamin H. Danks Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Fromm Music Foundation Award, First Prize at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris, several awards from the Percussive Arts Society, multiple ASCAP Awards, and in 1995 the “Officer Cross of Merit of the Republic of Poland.

She often serves as a judge at international and national competitions for composers and percussionists, such as the International Competition for Musical Performers in Geneva, Switzerland, K. Serocki International Composers Contest in Warsaw, ASCAP Composers Contest in New York, PAS Composition Contests, and Penderecki’s International Contest for Contemporary Music in Cracow, Poland.

In 1965-70 Ptaszyńska was a president of the Circle of Young Composers of the Union of Polish Composers in Poland. Also, in the years 1981-84 she served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Percussive Arts Society (PAS) in the U.S. In 1991 she co-founded and for several years was vice president of the American Society of Polish Music in New York. Currently she is a member of ASCAP, the Percussive Arts Society, and the Polish Music Reference Center in Los Angeles, and serves on the board of the International Alliance of Women Composers.

As an artistic adviser, she arranged the music program of two Polish music festivals which took place at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in New York in 1994 and 1996.

Prior to coming to the University of Chicago, Ptaszyńska taught composition at Northwestern University, Indiana University in Bloomington, the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, the University of California at Berkeley and at Santa Barbara, and Bennington College in Vermont.   

Her music is published by PWM – Polish Music Publications in Poland – and by Theodore Presser in the U.S.A. Recordings of her work are available on CD Accord-Universal, Muza Polish Records, Chandos, Olympia, Dux, Bayer Records, and Pro Viva Sonoton labels.

--  Throughout this webpage, names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


Having spent a large part of her life living and working in Chicago, I had the good fortune of running into Marta Ptaszyńska on numerous occasions.  Her music was included on concerts which I attended, and on two occasions we met specifically to sit down and chat about her creativity.

Our first get-together was in March of 1988, and the second was nine years later, in May of 1997.  Both encounters are presented on this webpage.

One of the many things I have learned over the years is how to judge when to push further and deeper into a particular topic.  In this case, I could see that my guest was willing to probe hidden corners and distant areas, so there are a few times when we wander into somewhat uncharted territories.  Her responses and remarks reveal a keen understanding of just how her ideas are transmitted from her imagination to the page, and from the page through the interpreters to the audience.

As is the case with many creators whose first language is not English, their thoughts flow freely without regard to grammatic or linguistic perfection. (!)  In this case, I have corrected a number of technical flaws, but have left in a few of the newly-coined words which charmingly and accurately reflect her ideas and thoughts.

Here is our first conversation . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   We’ve been talking about some of the sorrows of being a modern composer, so tell me some of the joys of being a composer as we approach the end of the twentieth century.

Marta Ptaszyńska:   First of all, from my point of view the biggest joy for the composer is to have all the works performed.  That’s probably the most inspiriting for the composer, just to be performed, and to hear his or her own music performed by the great performers of our time.  It’s not only the very great performance because I notice that the level of performing arts is so high in this country.  Even university orchestras are in such a good shape that they perform the music beautifully.  I also found now, in my experience, that even the soloists which perform many times my music were very beautiful, and very well done.  They were very well interpreted, and played with clear and technical ease.

ptasznska BD:   Are there ever times when the performers find things in your score that you didn’t know you had hidden there?

MP:   Yes, sometimes.  I found this quite often now.  To my great surprise, sometimes the musicians
or mainly the conductorsdiscover something.  I am surprised because I didn’t think that was my idea.  Maybe it was in my subconsciousness, but I didn’t really think about this.  Suddenly, someone pointed out, “Look, this is such a similar passage as this one; it’s like a mirror.  I think it’s wonderful, so that’s great.

BD:   When you’re writing a piece, are you in control of the pen or is the pen in control of you?

MP:   Oh, no, no, no, I’m in control with the pen, absolutely.

BD:   Always?

MP:   Absolutely always.  Even before I start each composition, I have the whole plan of the work.  I know exactly what is going to be the last note, what is the last chord, how is the ending before I start the first note in the beginning.  Then I usually prepare the harmonic plan and make a sketch for the whole piece.  The formal design and the harmonic is for me the most important.  I’ll find the material on which I will be working, and then I write usually it on one piece of paper.  I must have the whole piece on the one sheet, so then I see it all very clearly

BD:   This is the sketch of the piece?

MP:   Yes, the sketch of the piece, the formal design, the harmonic flow, the choice of the chords, and the changing of the chords and where they should occur.  When I have all this, then I start.  I sit down and I write, and very often I have to check with my sketch so as not to go far away; just be strict, and keep the idea the way it’s supposed to be.

BD:   You don’t feel that the sketch hampers a good idea that you have later on?

MP:   Yes, that’s the thing, right.  [Both laugh]  The very important thing for me is that when I have the sketch, the formal design, the harmonic sketch with the motif constructions, then I sit down, and during the two weeks I can write the piece.  To make the whole score I have everything written down, but no one else would even dare to write down the score from these sketches.  But I hear everything from the beginning through to the end, and then I have to write down what I hear, like dictation.  I have this music going, and until I finish I will hear this all the time, over again and again.  Sometimes, when I don’t write the music, it’s very painful because I hear the music all the time, and I get very tired of hearing the same music all the time.  Maybe it’s my concentration.  I concentrate enormously just not to forget, and that’s probably why I hear this all the time until the point when I write it down.  Then suddenly it’s a relief, and I don’t need to think about it anymore, so then the music disappears.

BD:   Are you ever surprised by what you see two weeks or two months or two years later?

MP:   No, I’m pretty much aware about my decisions, but I’m always surprised my music sounds better than I thought.  I’m not surprised that whatever I heard was something better, but when I hear the live performance, I’m surprised how good it sounds, and surprised about the other possibilities.

BD:    What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear a piece of yours?  Or what do you hope for?

MP:   The most important facet is the audience.  I would be very happy if they would understand my idea.  If they listen to my piece and they understand my idea, then I am the most happy because that means that whatever I wanted to say, to express in the music, they pick up.  Today I gave a lecture on my music, and I played a little bit of Dream Lands, Magic Spaces for violin, piano, and six percussionists.  In this piece I was interested in the dreamlike sounds maybe coming from the idea of surrealistic painting.  It depicts something that is very real, but in the dreams the reality is a little bit faded.  We can see some points, but not in the way we can see things in real life.  So, everything changes and does not have clear contours or shapes.  Sometimes these musical elements from the real world are like quasi quotations from other composers where the music is very well known
like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  It’s absolutely so known that everybody knows it.  Then when I take some of those elements from Vivaldi, it’s like introducing the real world into his imaginary landscapes.  After the workshop, when had I played Dream Lands, Magic Spaces, one older lady came and said, “When I listened to the piece, I suddenly developed the idea that it sounded like a little bit like Szymanowski.  I said, That’s wonderful, because it was Szymanowski a little bit.  So, I was really pleased that she understood this idea.

BD:   Do you feel you are part of a line of composers, a lineage, a heritage?  

MP:   Yes.  Now I really feel connected to the style of Witold Lutosławski and Bartók, and Stravinsky.  One piece I wrote, Madrigals - Canticum Sonarum Igor Stravinsky in Memoriam, is interesting because I never used any quotations.  Never!  But always when the piece is performed, the music critic and all the audience and the musicians say it sounds so wonderful, but from what piece of Stravinsky did you the quotation?  The composition of the chords and the instrumentation probably sounded in some parts like Stravinsky.

BD:   It was something that he could have written but didn’t?

MP:   Right.  Maybe it’s just the understanding of the idea.  That’s probably what it is.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask a philosophical question.  Where is the balance in music between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

MP:   That’s a very good question, especially today in twentieth century music because right now it’s different.  The situation has changed from what it used to be like in the 
60s.  Then, the new ideas in music, which were introduced by Stockhausen and Berio, and the school of the Polish composers, brought sonorities and completely new effects.  They were called ‘avant garde’ music, and new ideas were very interesting.  But even though they were big, the audience didn’t like this new sound.  For Boulez’s music, the audience hated it, so they left the concert hall.  When Boulez was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, after four years he gave a very long interview to The New York Times, and the music critic asked him this same question.  He said that after four years he had achieved a lot, because when he came and played Schoenberg, the ladies in the first rows walked out during the piece.  But after four years they learned that when Schoenberg is played, they waited behind the doors and entered when it was finished!  [Both laugh]  They learned not to leave during the music, so they waited.  Because there is the art and the entertainment, it’s supposed to be both now.  Art is some kind of an entertainmentfor me at least.  It’s not only art that no one will understand, or will be so difficult that the people will hate, or is only art because people hate it.  Let’s not say that.  Art used to be an entertainment, and it should be this perfect balance between art and entertainment.  They should both come together as one unit.

ptaszynska BD:   Fuse together?

MP:   Fuse together, yes.  There should always be an enjoyment of the music.

BD:   For you, what is the purpose of music in society?

MP:   There are many, many things.  First of all, music is, like we just said, an art but it’s also an entertainment.  Music usually involves some ideas that you cannot express in words, so then the music contains another idea, another force.  Music is important because it introduces a better world to which we should know, or to which we should approach.

BD:   Something to aspire to?

MP:   Aspire to, right.  That’s why it is the very important part of our life.  Without music, life would be very painful, sad and empty, because there is no way that you can express the feeling you have after hearing some pieces.  There are no words you can use for the real feeling you have when you hear a good piece.

BD:   What makes a piece ‘good’?

MP:   This is a wonderful theme for a doctorate thesis!  [Both laugh]  What makes a piece good is that there are so many parameters that should be connected together.  It’s like a computer, or a mouse.  It’s the idea of the composer.  Right now maybe there’s another trend, but before, in the
60s and 70s, people forgot about the inspiration.  They thought only that a good piece is the perfect technique with the solution of some elements.  They had to be just perfect.  The more theoretical structures are perfect, that means the piece is good, and we have a lot of piece like that.  They were written beautifully.  They have such a fantastic clean technique, and they have such a fantastic organization of material, and they’re empty.  They lack content.  Now we are getting the combination of the perfect organization with something which is inspiration, because without this I don’t even think to write a piece.  The piece will be always like an exercise, only introducing a good technique with knowledge of this and this and this.  After a while it might be interesting to study, and it might even be interesting to listen to, but if it’s missing this content, I don’t think this kind of music will survive. 

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

MP:   That’s a very good question.  Young composers should really study music on their own
not only the things that they do at schoolbecause that’s the main training, the self-training of composer.  When I went to school, I had very strict program in the Academy of Music in Warsaw, but I was not satisfied.  I was satisfied with the program because that was a lot, but still it was missing something.  So I studied on my own all the Beethoven, all the Brahms, the harmony, everything, piece by piece.  Then I played for myself on the piano all the things given.  Sometimes it was not the proper tempo, but I didn’t care.  I studied harmonic construction and motifs because that’s very important.  The good technique is the first thing, to be able to express yourself very well.  That’s what the young composers should really study on their own.  They should also study all the music.  Even if they don’t like some pieces, they should also study them because that’s a good part of traininggood organization, and good discipline.  They learn very good discipline in music.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

MP:   Oh, yes!  Yes, I’m very optimistic.  The music goes up and down, and now something else will come after the cacophonic music.  There’s probably nothing more to the cacophonic music because it’s so highly organized, and so accomplished, that what we can do after this?  The cacophonic music existed, and now we have all kinds of different trends, different styles, different ideas, and each idea, if it’s really good, will survive. 
Still, we have a lot of electronic media that’s not explored.  There is just a small part of our brain that we use, but we still have a lot of it left, and it is the same in electronic music.  What I just said may be unbelievable, but for the future I think only the good pieces really have the chance to survive.  That means the pieces are really accomplished, with something from the technical organization of material, and some ideas and some inspiration or point of view.  They must have all these elements all together, and if so, I think they will really survive.  There’s a lot of future for music. 

BD:   Do you make sure that you put all of those elements into your music?

MP:   I try to.  I always tried the best, so that means I always try to write the way I can possibly do the best.  Of course, the time goes on, and when I look at the older pieces, I say they are always very well constructed, but I would change this and this sometimes.  I should add some small details, but I never change the piece, because it is the way I thought at some certain point I really wanted it to be, so it’s not necessary to change the idea.  Once I tried to change the idea, and it became a completely new piece.  Always the last piece is the most interesting for me.

BD:   Then you move onto the next, then the next, and then the next?

MP:   The next, right!  Then I try to use the best possible material and organization, and sometimes I really make mistakes.  When I write, and I copy the score, that’s the crucial point.  When I copy the score on the transparent paper, then suddenly I have this very critical look, and that is when I change this and this and this.  But it all stays within the same idea.  I may change a little bit of orchestration, or a little bit of rhythm, or other very slight changes, but at this point I am very critical, and as soon as I finish, then I usually don’t try to change.

BD:   That’s it?

MP:   That’s it!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What are the big differences between music coming out of Poland today, and the music coming out of America today?

MP:   It’s interesting that in both countries it looks like all composers are starting to think on their own, and each is trying to find their individual language and write in the language that they prefer in their music.  In Poland, for example, today there is such a variety of styles that never was before, because in previous times the composers sticked together and used more or less the same style in their music.  But right now, a composer named Górecki writes minimalistic music, with very simple structures that will go for a long time, adding and changing slightly.  Then we have Penderecki who is always completely different, and then we have Lutosławski.  Each one is completely different from the other composers.  Then we have the composers who try to write tonal music right now because they think this is a new trend.  There are composers who write romantic music, and there are composers who write absolutely the most far-out music, absolutely avant-garde or something that is even hard to say what it is.  Such a diversity of styles was never present before in the music, and America also has a lot of different styles.  Some students always try to take up new ideas.  Suddenly they try to join the newest trend, and just as suddenly they go it alone, because maybe they got tired of being like the others.  George Crumb’s music was so popular, that when I was teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara, all my students were writing like George Crumb.  All of them!  Then, if I said to write something in the style of Charles Wuroinien they said,
[emphatically] “No, no, no, no!  They did not accept that style and wouldn’t write like that.  That really proved that the composer who has something to say produces his own style and his own music, which is so inspiring and so strong that other people try to imitate it.  Then suddenly they realize that they don’t have enough force to continue, so they go on their own.  We have a lot of trends everywhere.

BD:   Too many trends?

MP:   There are a lot of trends, so that means everybody can write however he feels about whatever he wants to write.  That’s what we have here in America
a lot of different trends, and a lot of different ideas.  We have minimalistic music, and we have Elliott Carter, and also George Crumb.  Crumb will probably never write minimalistic music because he has his own style.  Everybody has his own style, and it’s completely different, but they’re going on their own, and that’s what I really appreciate.  I like, for example, Shostakovich very much because Shostakovich always kept his own face.  He never tried to change because the time was changing or because other people were changing styles.  There were new contemporary styles but he always tried to be himself.  That’s very important, I think.

BD:   So he changed, but it was his own evolution?

MP:   His own evolution, right!

BD:   Are you changing, also?

MP:   Oh, yes.  This changing is an important part of the creative process.  I couldn’t stay with the same ideas and the same style forever.  

ptaszynska BD:   Now you compose and you also teach?

MP:   Yes, I teach, I compose, and I also play percussion sometimes.  I used to play a lot, but then I started to spend more time on composition, because the two things
composing and performingreally take a lot of time.  So, that’s the kind of balance I try to maintainto play and to composebut in recent years I spend more time on composition.  I wrote more and bigger pieces.  I wrote the Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra in three movements.  It’s a very large piece, and I wrote Winter’s Tale for string orchestra, and I wrote a lot of pedagogical music.  After a while it gets very difficult to do both things at the same time, especially right now when percussion is developing so much.  They developed such a lot of technique that now, in order to maintain this level, to play exactly like the virtuoso percussionists play, everybody has to spend a couple of hours a day really to play well.  It’s very difficult right now to be excellent in both percussion playing and composition, but I’m more interested in composition right now, and more and more involved in composition, so I just play percussion occasionally.  I usually play things that I have already played before, and I don’t need to practice.  Whatever I play from the large repertoire I can play, but just to try to study and learn new pieces, I don’t have time for that right now.

BD:   Have we gotten to the point yet that the virtuoso percussionist is on the same level as the virtuoso violinist, or the virtuoso pianist?

MP:   Yes, we have come to the same place.  They are just absolutely fantastic.  There is one percussionist in the States, whose name is Steven Schick, and he plays all the solo percussion pieces from memory.  This includes Zyklus by Stockhausen, an extremely difficult piece. 

BD:   Have you written an opera?

MP:   I wrote an opera based on a poem of Byron [Oscar of Alva], and it received an award in Poland.  There was a competition organized by the Polish Radio and Television, and I received an award in 1972.  It’s more like a television opera, not an opera for the theater, but it can be performed both ways.  Now (1988), after fifteen years, they came to the final point of production.  It took so long because the theme I chose was a mediaeval one, and it was a very difficult production for television.  So it has come now to the point that it is ready.

BD:   So now you will finally get to see it?

MP:   I will get to see it, right.  Speaking of waiting, some people, colleagues of mine at the universities, say they really don’t care if the audience doesn’t understand their music, because if they do not appreciate it or do not like it, after fifty years they will discover it.  Many composers have the idea that they will be discovered after fifty or a hundred years, but I don’t believe in this.  The composition really should work right away.  If it’s not working, the people will not understand.  It shows there might be something wrong if they don’t understand the idea of the composer.  But this waiting a hundred years until it is discovered, I don’t think is right.

BD:   It’s a waste of time!

MP:   Yes.  I know a composer in Poland who has written maybe ninety symphonies, and 120 quartets, but no one knows any of them because he writes for himself!  He puts everything on the shelf, and I think this is a waste of time.  It’s a kind of sickness because it’s wrong completely!

ptaszynsak BD:   I’m glad your music is getting out and getting understood!

MP:   It should be this way.  The arts should be enjoyed at some point.  They shouldn’t be only entertainment.  We have popular music if it’s only entertainment, but ours should also be some kind of entertainment.  For example, Mozart’s music is fantastically entertaining, but it’s also a piece of art.  It’s so entertaining that it’s hard to believe that this is art.  It’s a fantastic combination on both things, and they work together.  Some people think that art music is art and it’s not entertainment because it should only be art.  But what kind of art is without entertainment?  If I go to the museum and I look at Monet, it’s a beautiful, fantastic piece of art, but it’s more than entertainment to look at.

BD:   It’s enjoyment, also!

MP:   Yes, certainly.  I love painting.  I see the music in colors, so that means I see the tonalities and colors, and each tonality has different colors.  I see some structures like the sounds of music.  When I go to the museum and I look at the Kandinsky paintings
which are very inspiring for meI hear all the music coming out from the paintings.  It’s so inspiring.  In recent years I was so interested in the surrealistic paintings, that when I look at the painting I almost feel the mood for the music.  I try to make the titles of my pieces after the paintings. like Moon Flowers.  It’s the painting by Odilon Redon, a French symbolist painter, and it’s a fantastic painting, Fleurs Lunaires in French.  So it’s the ‘Moon Flowers’ which I use as the title of my composition, but my piece has nothing to do with Odilon Redon.  It’s only the idea or the vision I had while looking at the painting that gave me the inspiration.  That’s why I put the title. 

BD:   So it’s not like Pictures at an Exhibition of Mussorgsky?

MP:   Oh, no, no, no, not at all.  It’s the description of my inspiration, and when someone listens to the piece, they will think about the vision I had when I looked at the Moon Flowers.  It’s probably some kind of recollection in the music.

BD:   Maybe ten or twenty years from now you will look at that painting again, and get inspired for yet another piece, and compose Moon Flowers Two.

MP:   Yes, that might be interesting to see how they would be similar.  The opposite is the Winter’s Tale (La Novella D’Inverno).  That was not a painting, but an epic poem about very much a dreamlike-style, a story in winter.  There I used some elements of Vivaldi’s music, again the same dream-like idea, but with real of elements from real life.  It’s Vivaldi because he’s very real, and I put his ideas through stained glass.  Then it came out as a completely different idea.  Vivaldi is not really existing in the piece.  Someone may not even know this is Vivaldi, but this is the thing that comes from reality, and all the mix-up with the dreamlike fantasies into a sound structure.  So that’s the idea, based on the surrealistic and dream-like ideas.

BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

MP:   Oh, yes, yes, yes.  Great fun!  This is my passion
I compose music.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.

MP:   Oh, thank you very much for the interview.  I really like your questions.  They are very good

We now move ahead just over nine years, to May of 1997 . . . . . . . . .

BD:   You’re about to take a position at Indiana University as professor of composition?

MP:   That’s right, yes.

BD:   You’re enjoying the teaching?

MP:   I love to teach.  That’s the one thing I love to do, and my students probably become the nicest and very quickly because I think they also like to study with me.  I’m also teaching right now at Northwestern University, and this quarter I’m also teaching the class of Shulamit Ran, who is on leave from the University of Chicago.

BD:   So you’re going back and forth all the time!

MP:   Yes, I’m going back and forth all the time from Northwestern University to the University of Chicago.

BD:   You do a lot of teaching.  Do you then get enough time to compose?

ptaszynska MP:   This is a good question!  I’m usually at Northwestern for one quarter, so the rest of the year I have for myself to compose, but during the teaching I hardly can concentrate on anything to write.  Actually, at this time I am have accomplished something!  I wrote a piece for euphonium and piano, which was actually more like a revising and recopying than generally composing the piece.  I did this for the International Woman’s Brass Conference in St. Louis at the end of June.  The premiere will be then, and the euphonium player is from Disney World in Orlando.

BD:   When you’re teaching and you’re trying to get some composing done, do you ever learn anything from your students?

MP:   Oh, a lot.  I’m learning every day!  Each class is very inspiring.  Maybe the students learn something from me, but I learn from the students, also.  This kind of exchange of ideas is very important, and I wish all composers, not only the students, could get together and discuss things like they used to be at the beginning of the century in Paris.  That is where the painters met at the Montmartre, and they exchanged their ideas with the poets in Mallarmé’s circle, and Apollinaire, and also the composers such as Debussy, and many other composers and artists.  This period was actually very inspiring for everyone, and we can see this in their arts.  Right now, I see the division of the separate groups, not only the division of the arts, but also the division among composers, and the division among universities.  Students from Northwestern University are hardly coming to the concerts at the University of Chicago, and the students from the University of Chicago are hardly coming to Northwestern.

BD:   So you’re trying to get a bigger integration of the public and the creators?

MP:   That should be more, because the ideas come from every place.  It is extremely important to have this kind of very inspiring and very creative environment, but if the students are separated, they don’t have this feedback.  That’s what I’m teaching students, and I learn very much from them, also, by this kind of this environment
sitting and discussing the works, and discussing the problems and the ideas.

BD:   What do you say to a composition student who is so focused on his or her own work that they don’t want to do anything else?

MP:   The students are focused, but they are also open.  Maybe they would like to stay in their own circles they enjoy, but they should go further, and they should look for some other ideas, because it’s very inspiring.  They may not accept the ideas, but it’s good to know that they exist.

BD:   Staying just in your own circle sounds too comfortable.

MP:   Sometimes it’s too comfortable, right.

BD:   Are you pleased with what you see coming off the page of your students?

MP:   Oh, very much so.  I do not impose some kind of strict ideas that they have to write the music for each class every week, because I know from my own experience that sometimes the creative process is not coming like an administrative process.  You cannot always just sit down to write, and then ideas come up on the page.  Sometimes it takes time because the work is developing in your mind, and then it takes time to put all the ideas on the paper.  That’s why it’s very important for the students to come to class, and even if they’re not bringing any music written out on the paper, they are discussing the ideas.  That’s very important and very creative, as well. 

BD:   When you’re composing, do your ideas always come when you demand them?

MP:   No, no, no, not at all.  I have a couple of notebooks of ideas, and I notate the ideas when they’re coming.  Then when I need them, I look to my notebook, and think about them, and segregate them, and try to choose something.  Sometimes it happens that I can find very inspiriting ideas in my notebook. 

BD:    Are some of these ideas generated by the conversations you have with your students?

MP:   Sometimes, yes.  That’s very important.  I get a lot of ideas from my students.  I do not want to say that I am picking up the ideas from my students, and how I’m using them in my music, but sometimes the ideas of students clarifies my mind very much.  When I describe some processes of techniques, or some ideas of how one would put this on paper, suddenly my ideas become clearer.

BD:   When you’re writing one piece, do you often get an idea that you know a work in another piece, and then drop it in the notebook?

MP:   Sometimes, yes, but usually I mostly use the same kind of material, so when I set the piece, it will be based on a particular texture of structural harmonic and material.  Then I try to use the same thing, so I’m not looking in the notebooks for the ideas.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You get asked to write a lot of pieces.  How do you decide, yes, you will write this one, or no, you won’t write this one?

MP:   Maybe this will be not very nice to say, but I am a very lazy writer.  [Has a huge laugh]  I write usually on commission, so when the commission comes and I have to concentrate and think about it, sometimes I say no because I don’t feel for that music.  But sometimes commissions are very inspiring for me because it’s a demand.  I can see when my work will be performed, and it’s commissioned so I can start to work on the piece.  That’s mainly happened for many years, maybe for thirty years right now, because I don’t remember any piece I wrote just for my own purpose.  I usually write for commissions on demand, or requests not necessarily for money.  Sometimes, the musicians are very good, and I like them, and they ask me for the piece that they would like to perform.  So that’s also good idea.

BD:   So the guarantee of performance is almost like a commission?

MP:   That’s right, yes.

BD:   But something must tell you yes or no.  What is it that says, 

MP:   It’s very difficult to describe, because sometimes I am asked to write a piece for an instrument I especially don’t like too much, or a combination I don’t like too much, or maybe the kind of ideas are not very appealing to me, or that I just don’t see, and it’s not very inspiring for me.  Once I was asked to write a piece for tuba and percussion.  It might be very interesting, but somehow I couldn’t figure out the piece.

BD:   Are there times though that you start a piece that you don’t feel is inspiring, and then you get into it, and you decide,
I’m glad I forced myself”?

MP:   Yes.  That was the case with the piece for euphonium and piano for the International Brass Women’s Conference in St. Louis.  When I was asked to write this piece as a commissioned work, I said to myself,
“Euphonium and piano???  Piano is excellent.  I know the piano, but the euphonium I’m not familiar with.  I know the instrument, but to write for it I should be very familiar with the techniques.  But I thought somehow I would figure this out.  Then, Gail Robertson, who is premiering the piece in St. Louis, called me and said, I’m going to perform your piece, and if you’d like to know something, I can tell you about it.  She told me everything, including how she was playing with a group at Disney World, and the conversation was so inspiring that I wrote the piece right way.

Dr. Gail Robertson
 serves as Assistant Professor of Tuba and Euphonium/Jazz at the University of Central Arkansas where she is tubist in the Pinnacle Brass and teaches the Jazz Ensemble II. She earned her B.A. degree from the University of Central Florida and a M.M. in Euphonium Performance from Indiana University while serving as graduate assistant to Harvey Phillips. She postponed her doctoral studies at the University of Maryland with Dr. Brian Bowman to perform with the “Tubafours” at Walt Disney World, Orlando, where she served as musical supervisor/chief arranger and produced a highly acclaimed CD, “Tubas Under the Boardwalk.” She has recently completed her D.M.A. as a University Distinguished Fellow at Michigan State University studying with Phil Sinder, Ava Ordman, and Ricardo Lorenz. She has taught on the faculties of Eastern Michigan University, the University of Central Florida, Bethune-Cookman University, the University of Florida, and remains active as a teacher, adjudicator, composer, arranger and free-lance artist, both nationally and internationally.

Robertson was recently elected Vice President/President Elect of the International Tuba and Euphonium Association (ITEA) and she began her six-year term on July 1, 2017. She is currently the Chair/Chief Editor of the International Tuba and Euphonium Press and serves on the Board of Directors of the Leonard Falcone Tuba and Euphonium Festival. She has served as President of the International Women’s Brass Conference (IWBC) and as a conference host in 2010 and 2006.

BD:   So you really needed that human touch?

MP:   That’s right.

BD:   Is all music human?

MP:   [A bit uncertainly]  Yes...

BD:   Even electronic music?

ptaszynska MP:   [Smiles]  I think so, because it was also set by a composer who decided to make a choice about particular sonorities and sounds.  Sometimes the music may sound very cold, or maybe sound very alienated, but it’s human because it was decided by a human brain!

BD:   Is there ever a chance that the music becomes its own body, or do you always control the piece and where it’s going?

MP:   Oh, I control the piece!  It’s the intuitive process, and it’s very important in my music.  Intuition plays a great role in my music, but then the intuition has to be controlled in the final stage by intellectual process.  It has to be a golden proportion in both directions.  The intuitive and intellectual processes should mesh together to form the music.  

BD:   When you put something down on paper, have you created it or have you discovered it?

MP:   When I put something on the paper, then I actually wrote it down from whatever I heard in my head.

BD:   But have you created these ideas or have you found and discovered these ideas?

MP:   Sometimes it’s the one way, sometimes it’s the other way.  Usually the process is that when I write something down, I already know what to write.  So, I hear the music before, and then I write it down.

BD:   When you start to write a piece, do you know in advance about how long it will take you to compose it?

MP:   Usually I think a lot.  I think about the piece, and the piece is growing in my mind.  I think until I’m pretty sure how long will be the piece is going to be, and then I sit down and write.  This process is quite short, but the original process of creating a piece takes me a lot of time.  But as soon as I know exactly from the beginning to the end how the piece sounds, what will be the construction, what will be the structure, I have heard everything so I sit and write this down.

BD:   Is it merely transcribing?

MP:   It’s almost like that.  I usually say this to the students, that if you write a letter, you know exactly what to write.  You sit down and it takes you a short time to write the letter.  If you don’t know what to write in your letter, the letter is not sent for many years because you just don’t know what is going to happen.  That’s very important.  Actually, the process is very good for me.  It’s working.  Some composers make sketches, and I also make a lot of sketches.

BD:   To see what will work and will not work?

MP:   What will work and what will not work, but also to make sketches.  I’m pretty much sure what I will pick up already because the process is going in my brain.  So, then when I decide to pick up something, I may do the sketches just to see and to confirm to myself the choice is the best I wanted to have.

BD:   Are you ever surprised by what you hear?

MP:   I’m always surprised for better.  I noticed that the piece never deceives me.  In this case, what I was expecting will be sounding better, and never sounding worse.  I always expect the piece to sound worse, and it is sounding better.  It never happened to me the reverse situation.  Probably, when I’m composing I see the elements and the structure, and the idea in a more critical way, and then when the music is performed, it’s surprisingly much better than I can see when I am writing it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you give the piece to the performers, do you expect them to put their own input into the piece?

MP:   Absolutely, yes.  I don’t like performance which are only the notes.

BD:   How much should they put in?

MP:   Actually, the music will dictate that because everything is in the music.  So, the good performer will make out the interpretation of ideas.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But each musician will put in something different.

MP:   [Smiles]  Different, yes.  Musicians may put in something different, but it’s really interesting that sometimes, by putting in something different they actually bring out some different elements from the piece.  It’s very interesting to hear different interpretations, but it’s always the same music.  I once had a very bad performance of a piece... I won’t even mention what it was, but I was very disappointed.  However, the audience liked it, and Witold Lutosławski, who was my former mentor, said to me,
How much do you expect of the piece was right?  I said, Maybe sixty per cent of the piece was okay, and he said, If sixty per cent sounds very good, it means that the piece is very good!

BD:   Is there ever such a thing as a perfect performance?


MP:   A perfect performance???  Vladimir Horowitz!  [Much laughter from both]  I don’t really expect to have a perfect performance because it’s not the point.  We may hear a perfect performance on a CD sometimes, but the performance is really boring because it doesn’t have any flow; it does not have any drama, and does not have the mood structure.  The performance is perfect because all the notes are there, and all the rhythms and all the dynamic signs are there, but the music would be, somehow, not perfect.  Leopold Stokowski’s performances are not perfect, but they are really wonderful and I really like them very much because there’s some kind of individuality.  There’s some kind of spontaneity, which is also very important in the music. 

BD:   So we’re back to being human again?

MP:   Human, right!  This kind of a sublime CD performance sometimes is really boring because of the way they produce it.  The musicians are playing from segment to segment, so they lack continuity because of that.  I prefer the live performances which are really interesting and always very good.

BD:   You say that perfection is not the point of music.  What is the point of music?

MP:   In performance, the perfection is not the most crucial thing in the music.  The most crucial thing is the soul, the interpretation.  Behind the notes there’s the spirit, and that’s what is very important.

BD:   The spirit that you have put in, and the spirit that the performer puts in?

MP:   The performer puts in, also.

BD:   So it’s two spirits?

MP:   It takes two spirits that produce this kind of great performance.

BD:   So it’s almost like a marriage.  You have to have two together to produce the new sound?

MP:   Two together
the performer and the composer should merge. 

BD:   Does this make any difference if you are performing your own music
that you are both composer and performer?

MP:   I don’t know.  Sometimes the composers are not very good performers of their music.  That’s what I heard...

BD:   Are you a good performer of your music?

MP:   I don’t know!  [Bursts out laughing]  I try to be a good performer because when I play I take a different position.  I look differently at the music than when I compose the music.  I do not consider it my music, but I consider it a piece to be performed.

ptaszynska BD:   Is there ever a time when you, the performer, fights with you, the composer?

MP:   [Laughs]  Maybe not.

BD:   I just wondered if, when you’re performing, you would think
I wish I had done something different.

MP:   Oh, in this case, yes.  I sometimes think about that, but it doesn’t have too much impact on me.  It does not change the situation too much.  Being a percussionist, when I perform my music I don’t think this is the case because I hear the percussion very well.  So, I usually try to write the way that there would be the perfect performance with the idea of the composer.

BD:   Is it easier or harder for you to work on your own piece, or someone else’s piece?

MP:   It’s the same.  I take the same approach to my music as when I perform other works.  It will be an exception that my music I know better.  [Laughs]

BD:   Even an old piece that you haven’t looked at for ten or twenty years?

MP:   Even an old piece, yes.

BD:   Does being a performer alter your compositional style at all?

MP:   Yes, very much.  I think that all composers should be performers.  It’s how it used to be in the older times, because the composer should have a practical touch in music.  Sometimes today the composer only composes and does not play any instrument.  The music may be very good, but it’s missing a kind of practicality that writing in a little bit different way would improve very much the performance, for example.

BD:   When you’re writing, do you also have the audience in mind?

MP:   Oh, yes, always.  I have the audience in mind, and I have the performers in mind because my music is written for a particular performer or singer.  When I wrote my opera, I originally put down the names of the singers.  Then the publisher said I would have to change that because they cannot go with the names.  But I wrote exactly for the particular singer
not for a soprano, but for the person who was going to sing it at that time.

BD:   Does that preclude others from singing the part?

MP:   No, but the thing is when I have the vision, is has to be not for the instrument.  If I was asked to write music for piano, I would never write music for piano because I don’t see that.  I don’t hear the music for piano solo.  I will write the music for a pianist, and I have to know the pianist who is going to be the performer.  Then I will write the music for pianists.

BD:   Instead of a ‘piano sonata’, should you call it a ‘pianist’s sonata’?

MP:   [Laughs, and ponders this a moment]

BD:   But if you specify a name, then other performers will shy away from it.  This seems like an even more personal connection than just dedicating a work to someone.

ptasxynska MP:   Yes, but there is very important psychology because I write for the particular performer.  I include a personality in the piece
his or her personalityand that will stay in the music.  Then another performer can play it, but that will be more human.  It’s not for the instrument, which does not have any feelings.  It’s just that instrument.  But it should be for the person.  That’s what I have in mind.

BD:   So when you write for a person, each one is individual?  There’s no difference if it’s a man or a woman
it’s just each individual?

MP:   Exactly right.  Like the euphonium and piano piece.  It was very uninspiring to me, but for Gale Robertson I immediately envisioned her, and I knew exactly how the piece would sound.  Of course, now everybody can play the piece, but I wrote it for her and included her personality.

BD:   But I would venture to say most euphonium players are men rather than women.  Is that going to change at all when a man plays the piece?

MP:   No, it will not change.  It would be the same.

BD:   The male euphonium players don’t have to try and find their feminine side?

MP:   [Laughs]  No!  This is excluded completely.
BD:   Every player must just find their musical side?

MP:   Find the music, yes.

BD:   So music really is genderless?

MP:   Yes.

BD:   Music is music is music?

MP:   Music is music, right.

BD:   We say that, but is music always music?

MP:   Yes, I think so.  Do you have other ideas of music?

BD:   Is there any sound that is not music?

MP:   It depends how you approach that, because there’s the one trend that’s saying that all sounds are music, and from that standpoint, silence is also music
as John Cage saidand I love this idea.  The other idea is that music is like the sounds, and there are unmusical sounds and musical sounds that encompass all versions of categorizing.

BD:   Then where is the division?  Where is the line between a musical sound and unmusical sound?

MP:   I don’t know.  [Laughs]  Maybe in the eighteenth century there were musical sounds and unmusical sounds, but today, if someone were turn on the water at the tap, that, for me, is sound, so it could be explored in music.  But even into the nineteenth century that was not the case.

BD:   Then let me ask the easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

MP:   The purpose of music is to put light into the darkness of the human soul.  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be right now?

MP:   Yes, I think so.  [Pauses a moment]  Actually, I think that I should do some more things.

BD:   More different things or just more things?

MP:   More things.  I should write more music, and I should also revise some pieces which were written very quickly.  Then I would like to edit some things, to correct some things.  I never had time for that.  Actually, yesterday I was thinking that it may be a very good time for this work.  I should maybe find a couple of months, or maybe even one year just to have time to revise things and put them together, and to write some other pieces that I always wanted to write, but never had time.  That’s because I ended up only writing commissioned pieces.

BD:   It would nice to do something that you just want to write?

MP:   Exactly.  That’s why I really have this great intention, but with the upcoming teaching at Indiana University, the prospect are very slim right now.  [Laughs]

BD:   But overall, are you looking forward to the new appointment?
MP:   Oh, yes, very much.  It’s a very good school.  I was there for one semester in 1983.  Indiana University is very well known in the entire world as a very good performing arts school.

BD:   Especially the opera!

MP:   Especially the opera, right, so maybe they would be interested in my children’s opera.  This is what I hope, so it might be a good thing.


BD:   What is the next piece coming up for you?

MP:   For my next piece, I got a commission from one of the German networks to write something for next year at the Baden-Baden Festival in Germany.  That is for percussion ensemble, and they are already in contact with me about it.  Then my children’s opera is going to be premiered in Warsaw by the Warsaw Opera Theatre, and this is a big event.  So, I hope will be very good.  

BD:   You’re from Poland.  Is it special to have your music performed in Poland, or it is better to have it performed all over the world?

MP:   All over the world, but the children’s opera was written in the Polish language, and was commissioned from the Warsaw Opera, so it has to be performed in Warsaw.  I’m looking right now for a translation of the libretto.  It’s a very international plot, so we should have this also in different languages, like English, or maybe in French, or in German.  But we will see the outcome after the premiere.  If the children really will like it...  because the children should love it, but I don’t know.  The times are changing right now, so maybe the children will find it very old-fashioned, and maybe they won’t like the piece.  So we will see.

BD:   Is composing fun?

MP:   Composing is hard, really, and nobody really realizes that.  It sometimes makes me really upset when the people say,
Oh, you’re a composer, how nice.  I tell them that nothing is nice in that.  It’s really hard work.  People who never got into this process don’t realize that it is a tremendous amount of work.  Sometimes I try to figure it out... being a woman, maybe that is why this profession belonged only to men, because it’s really very hard.  Sometimes I am so exhausted despite how it looks while working in the mind.  How could it be compared to the same amount of work and exhaustion of something that is physical?  The time you spend working on composingespecially copying the score and revising, and sitting and writing the scoresthat’s really hard work.

BD:   In the end, is it all worth it?

MP:   Yes, it’s worth it, especially when you have a situation when your music sounds better than you expected.  But sometimes, when I am really exhausted, I complain and say that I will just stop composing, like Rossini!  I will cook instead of composing!  [Laughs]  But after the piece has been performed and I really like it, maybe I will try something different next time.


BD:   Do you always have to try something different?  Has every piece got to be unlike the previous one?

MP:   Every piece is different.  Of course, the result is that musicologists try to put up some of the ideas, and when they write an article about my works they come to the point that they say my music is very coherent, and there’s a variety, but it’s actually very much the same style.  I say that I try to be very different, but somehow the gestures are similar, even if I think they are different.

BD:   The differences are more subtle?

MP:   Yes, maybe because I tried different ideas, but they could be combined as a one style.  So, that’s the idea.  I try to be different, and actually I think that’s true because I sound completely different in pieces.  Some of my students have said the pieces are different, so I was very pleased to hear that.
BD:   But they’re all you?

MP:   They’re all me, but they are different, like variations of the same theme.

BD:   Looking at you from different angles?

MP:   Yes.

BD:   Is that what we do when we listen to a piece
we look at you?

MP:   I don’t know.  Yes, probably.  The suggestion is that the composer who is very different in each piece means he does not have his own particular style.  If I try to be very different but end up representing the same kind of a style, that means I have my own style.  If I write music and it all sound entirely different, then probably it would be difficult to understand.  I think that all composers have one style.  They can write music that will be very different, but it will be all the same thing.  Look at Varèse, or even Stravinsky, who changed his style later and become the more involved with dodecaphonic and serial music.  But still it’s Stravinsky.  It’s always Stravinsky.  Nobody will tell me that it’s different!

BD:   You always see Stravinsky?

MP:   Right!

BD:   And we always see you in your pieces, so that’s good!

MP:   Yes, probably that’s good, provided it’s the way it’s supposed to be.

BD:   Thank you so much for giving us your music, and for sharing this time with me today.

MP:    It was very nice to speak with you again.

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© 1988 & 1997 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on March 4, 1988, and May 25, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1988, 1993, and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.

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.