Composer  David  Rakowski

Part of a Conversation with Bruce Duffie


David Rakowski (born June 13, 1958) grew up in St.Albans, Vermont where he played trombone in high school and community bands, and keyboards in a rock band called the Silver Finger. He was his high school class's valedictorian and its Best Thespian.  He went on to study at New England Conservatory, Princeton, and Tanglewood, where his teachers were Robert Ceely, John Heiss, Milton Babbitt, Paul Lansky, and Luciano Berio.

He has received a large number of awards and fellowships, including the Elise L. Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Rome Prize, and he has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music (for pieces commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the US Marine Band). He has composed nine concertos, six symphonies, 100 piano études, 74 piano préludes, eight song cycles, and a large amount of wind ensemble music, chamber music, and vocal music for various combinations, as well as music for children.

His music has been commissioned, recorded, and performed widely, and is published by C.F. Peters.

He is the Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Composition at Brandeis University, having also taught at New England Conservatory, Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford. In 2016, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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

David Rakowski was in Chicago in January of 2002, and was a guest in my home.  Our conversation was wide-ranging, and filled with insights and laughter.

Here is a brief portion of that chat . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   [Amidst the laughter]  Does this playfulness of words infuse the playfulness of your music?

David Rakowski:   Yes, there’s a lot of playfulness, especially in the piano Études, because there’s a lot of funny little quotes from popular music, or jazz, or other classical pieces in ways that are very much disguised.  They seem obvious when you know they’re there, but if you don’t, and you’re not expecting them, then you won’t find them.  You might feel dumb if I tell you there’s a quote from Smoke on the Water [song by the rock group Deep Purple] right here!  [They laugh]  [To read more about the rock song, which has a very interesting connection back to Classical Music, see the box at the bottom of this webpage.]

BD:   Is it your job, as the composer, to hide these references?

rakowski Rakowski:   Not necessarily.

BD:   Is it the job of the performers or listeners to find them?

Rakowski:   Nope!  Not necessarily.  There’s nothing in the music except the notes, and what the music is really about is both the way I organize the notes, but also the personal impression that it all makes for a specific performer.  Performers bring a lot to a piece that a composer could never have dreamed of, and that is often good, though it’s sometimes not as good.  But my music is so hard that I’m grateful when people learn the notes.  I’m especially grateful when someone goes beyond the notes, and actually starts thinking of the musical issues.  Amy [Briggs Dissanayake, who has played and recorded many of the Études] and I have long talks about these pieces, about just one note or one moment, and what it means towards the wholeness.  Really, it’s a mind-blowing process.

BD:   When another pianist takes these pieces that were written for Amy, do you want that other pianist to play them the same way that Amy did, or do you want each interpreter to find his or her own way within them?

Rakowski:   Both!  That’s part of my limitations as a rememberer of my own music.  Once I’ve written a piece, the first performance is what I carry in my mind for a long time, until I get the second performance, and that second performance may treat things a little bit differently.  The first thing I’ll say to the new performer is,
“At this moment, could you try that?  But if that doesn’t work, I’ll step back and let the other performer do what he or she really feels is in the music.  I prefer it to be something that’s honest with the performer, and something that draws on the performer’s own experience, rather than something I may tell them that they would have no idea about.  I don’t know anything about Indian Drumming, but if I did, and I wrote a piece about it, I wouldn’t expect someone who knew nothing about Indian Drumming to understand what I might say about the drumming patterns, and the way things are counted off in the piece.  I’d say, “What does this mean to you?  What are you really trying to do with this performance?  If the piece speaks to them, then they will have something to say, and they will bring a new level to the piece that I hadn’t thought of.  The most boring performances are the ones that are exactly like the ones that a computer can play.  I’ve heard playerswhom I won’t namewho have played my pieces and made them sound a lot like the computer did, where the notes are exactly in the right place, and the dynamics are exactly precise, and the tempos are exactly what I’d wanted.

BD:   When the tempos and the notes are precise, that’s the beginning, not the end?

Rakowski:   Exactly!  Dawn Upshaw came to Brandeis a while ago, and gave a Colloquia and master classes, and she said she thinks of the score just as the beginning.  Once you learn the notes and dynamics, you haven’t even started with the music, and I agree with that.

BD:   At what point does the pulling, and stretching, and interpreting make it no longer your piece?

Rakowski:   Nobody knows!  [Both laugh].  If I don’t recognize it, obviously I’ll say,
“It doesn’t sound like my piece, but it’s interesting what you’re doing with it.  [More laughter]

BD:   But you still wish to get the royalty from it?

Rakowski:   Yes, exactly!  [Laughter continues]

BD:   How much should the composer be the pilot, and how much should he be the inspiration for performers to go off on their own tangents?

Rakowski:   I don’t think anyone has a precise answer to that question, and different composers treat it differently.  I’ve known composers who are completely satisfied with the Midi-realization.  A lot of them come into composition lessons with their Midi-tapes, saying,
“Here’s what I wrote this week.  It then comes out of the computer, and it sounds like it came out of a computer.  So I ask them, “Is this really what the piece is supposed to sound like?  If they say that’s what they like, then fine, but it’s not really very deep music.


See my interviews with Harold Shapero, and Yehudi Wyner

BD:   Are we losing some students to the midi?

Rakowski:   Like all technology, it has its good and its bad aspects.  When PageMaker came out, instead of dozens you had thousands of typographers who were all doing bad things and making type look bad.  Midi does the same thing with pieces that are actually destined for real human players.  With Midi, there’s no sense of the difficulty of learning something with the difficulty of playing something.  There’s no sense of the humanity that it takes when there is an interaction between the brain and the notes.  There’s no sense of how the notes all fit together as a whole.  There’s simply a set of instructions carried out perfectly, and if that’s all that music is, then what’s the point in being in music in the first place?

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Are you saying that there really isn’t anything such as musical perfection in the real world???

Rakowski:   No, probably not.  Midi is useful sometimes for really thorny passages, to let it perform in time what the relationships are with all the notes to each other, and so forth.  But there really is no humanity to it.  I’m told that within the next thirty years, computers will be able to think like humans, and to act like humans, but I remain unconvinced.  On the other hand, in 1970, thirty years ago, if someone had said that you will be making your own CDs, people would first ask what’s a CD?  [Both a laugh]  So, I don’t know.

BD:   It seems to me that the first generation of technology is pretty good, because you have people who used to work without it now using the technology just as an ease in manipulation.  But then the second generation uses it without the prior knowledge.

Rakowski:   Yes, exactly, and that happens on every level.  That’s a cultural thing, too.  I am supposing that composers nowadays, who are taught how to write twelve-tone music, do it only in relation to what the rules are, not in relation to what the twelve-tone literature is.  I have students who want to write minimal music, and they don’t really know any of the history... not that it’s long and complicated, but they don’t know different trends, and they don’t know the early pieces.  They’ve heard some Philip Glass pieces on public radio, and decided that’s what they want to do.  If you’re really interested in something, you should learn enough about it to be immersed in it, and really get to know what its history is, so that you don’t keep opening doors that are already open.
BD:   Now we’re really at a cross-roads.  It used to be that if you want to study the literature, you’d have to pull the score off the shelf and sit down at the piano, or get a few players to play it.  Now you can pull a flat plastic off the shelf and listen to a performance.  Is that short-circuiting it too much?
Rakowski:   It short-circuits it in one sense, because it only gives you one way into the piece.  This is why I don’t mind that there are a hundred recordings of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, because it is a beautiful piece, and everyone has their own ideas, and there’s a different kind of humanity in every recording of it.

BD:   [With a bit of concern]  But who is going to sift through a hundred different recordings of that piece... besides you and me?

Rakowski:   Whoever’s really interested.  Whoever is really taken by the music will really want to get deeper and deeper into it.  Someone asked Brahms what his favorite piece was, and he said, “The one I hear in my head every time I read through a score.  That’s a famous quote, and in a certain sense, because of recordings, we no longer think about musicianship, and the ability to read scores at the piano, which is important.  It’s more important than it ever was, because fewer new pieces get played, and all you have is the score, and your ability to read the score to really to be able to hear through it.  This is why it’s nice that several of these Études are now getting multiple recordings, because the people bring different things to them.

BD:   You say that fewer new pieces are being performed, and yet more and more pieces seem to be written.

Rakowski:   What I mean is fewer new pieces in terms of percentage of the pieces that are being written, because everyone wants to be a composer now.  It seems the worse the economy gets, the more people want to do things that don’t make money!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Why is that?

Rakowski:   I have no idea.  It’s a strange thing.

BD:   Then let me ask, why did you want to be a composer?  This is assuming that you have wanted to be a composer now for many, many years.

Rakowski:   Because it keeps me awake at night!  [Laughs]  What to do in the next piece is the sort of thing that makes me wake up at night in a cold sweat, and mentally go through five or six different options before I decide which is the right one.  Then I go to sleep and forget them all.  [More laughter]  But really, I’m so obsessed with it that if I don’t do it, I’ll probably have a heart attack one day, or just go crazy.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  So, composition is keeping you out of the looney bin?

Rakowski:   In a way... or keeping me in it!  [Both laugh]


The story behind the song: Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water

Smoke On The Water has the most well-worn back story in all of rock, but there's no denying the Deep Purple classic's place in the pantheon of greats.

Stephen Tow's book London: Reign Over Me - How England’s Capital Built Classic Rock tells the story of London's impact on rock music, from skiffle and late night raves on Eel Pie Island to the blues boom and the birth of progressive rock.

With a forward by Bill Bruford and featuring interviews with Ian Anderson, Jon Anderson, Dave Davies, Peter Frampton, Roger Glover, Greg Lake, John Mayall, Carl Palmer, Richard Thompson, Rick Wakeman and dozens more, it transports the reader from the wreckage of post-war London on a journey to uncover the story of classic rock's birth.

In the excerpt below, Roger Glover is on hand to explain the story behind Smoke On The Water.

Ritchie Blackmore came up with the classic riff.

“I thought [I’d] play [Beethoven’s fifth symphony] backwards, put something to it,” he stated in a 2007 interview. “That’s how I came up with it. It’s an interpretation of inversion. You turn it back, and play it back and forth, it’s actually Beethoven’s fifth. So I owe him a lot of money.”

That may have been a joke given Blackmore’s sense of humour, but one thing isn’t. He wrote the riff in 'fourths,' which is a medieval style of writing. He had played around with that type of writing for a few years before stumbling upon what would become the iconic riff of Smoke On The Water.

The story about the song’s creation somewhat mirrors that of Free's All Right Now and other classics written as toss-offs and in a hurry.

Deep Purple were in the midst of recording their seminal 1972 album, Machine Head, at a casino in Montreux, Switzerland, when somebody set off a flare gun and the building burned to the ground. This was during a performance by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. So Deep Purple had nowhere to record.

“The guy who was in charge of the casino and kind of looking after us, came to us,” Glover recalled, “and he put all his problems aside and was worried about us. Our equipment was there. We were there. We had no place to record. So he arranged to have us move into a small theatre nearby the old casino – the ex-casino, I should say.”

The band set up on the stage and ran cables out to the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio. Recording began in the afternoon. The band took a break for dinner and returned to the studio around 9 or 10 p.m.

“We started jamming a bit,” said Glover. “And Ritchie just started this riff. I don’t know if he had the riff beforehand or whether he made it up on the spot, but it was a kind of mid-tempo, ploddy kind of riff. It came together fairly quickly. ‘Well this is a verse, we need a chorus. How about this? How about that? Let’s do a solo.’ And by the time we started recording it, it was [about] midnight.

"We were doing the first take of this song – well, it wasn’t a song yet. It was just a jam with a kind of rough arrangement to it. And what we didn’t know is that the police were trying to get in and stop us because we were keeping the whole town awake. Montreux was then a very sleepy town populated mostly by old ladies who had tea in the afternoon.”

So now the band had to find yet another place to record in this small, idyllic, quiet town. There weren’t many options, and it took a few days to find a suitable space.

“So we came across the Grand Hotel,” Glover recalled, “which was then closed for the winter. A cold sort of place, I mean it was freezing cold, after all [it was] November, December time. We arranged to have a carpenter put a couple of walls up. We threw some mattresses against the windows, brought a couple of industrial heaters to heat the place before we arrived there during the day. And [we] basically recorded there.

"We did Highway Star and Lazy and Pictures Of Home and all those. And we finished all those and we were still short of a song. ‘Well what about that one jam we did at that other place?’ ‘Yeah, ok. Well, what are we going to do with it?’

"‘Let’s write a song about the adventure of actually coming to try and record, and the place burning down and ending up doing it in a hotel corridor. Let’s write an autobiographical song.’

"And Ian [Gillan] and I sat down and we listened to the song. We said, ‘Right, well let’s write some lyrics.’ And we wrote them quite as conversationally as I’m talking to you.

“I came up with the title a day or two after the fire,” Glover recalled. “I said it half asleep as I was waking up, I realised I just said something out loud in the hotel room – to no one. There was no one there. Just me. And I thought, ‘Did I just say something out loud? What was it?’ ‘Smoke on the water.’”

“We never thought for a minute it was going to have the kind of future it was gonna have,” adds Glover. “We didn’t think that much of it. We thought, ‘Mid-tempo, slightly boring.’ We put all our efforts into another song on the album called Never Before. We thought that was going to be the single. But it wasn’t us that chose Smoke On The Water.

"It was first of all some DJs, and then the public at large turned it into the song it’s become. Now, listening to it, it’s obvious. The riff is so simple and yet so different to anything else. And I know, Ritchie himself has said it’s like Beethoven in a way – Beethoven’s fifth.

"What Beethoven does with just very few notes, that riff does it with very few notes, too. But it’s got a hint of Eastern mysticism in it, just by the semitone lift. Instantly recognisable and yet nothing like anything else. In retrospect, Smoke On The Water is pretty hilarious. It’s like writing a song about any mundane daily activity: 'I went to the grocery store / To buy some cheeeese.'"

But in this case it turned into an all-time classic.

© 2002 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago in January, 2002.  A portion was broadcast on WNUR the following May, and again in 2008, and 2017.  This transcription was made in 2021, 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.  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.