Composer / Psychotherapist  Paul  Ramsier

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Paul Ramsier showed promise as a pianist at the age of five and began composing at nine. At sixteen, he entered the University of Louisville School of Music. His graduate studies included piano with Beveridge Webster at the Juilliard School and composition with Ernst von Dohnanyi at Florida State University. In his early career in New York City, he was a staff pianist with the New York City Ballet where he was influenced by Balanchine and Stravinsky. During that period he studied composition with Alexei Haieff.  [Names which are links on this page refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD]

Ramsier’s output includes orchestral, opera, choral, instrumental and chamber works, but his best known contribution to contemporary music is his body of work for the double bass, which has established him as a major figure in the development of the instrument.  His renowned double bass compositions include four works with orchestra beginning with the landmark Divertimento Concertante on a Theme of Couperin. This and two subsequent works, Road to Hamelin and Eusebius Revisited have since become bass standards, and are regarded as the most performed compositions for bass and orchestra since l965.

There have been well over 150 such performances with orchestral ensembles including the Chicago Symphony, Toronto Symphony, London Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Melbourne (Australia) Symphony, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Puerto Rico Symphony, Montevideo Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, Columbus Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Israel Sinfonia, Louisville Orchestra, Istanbul State Symphony, Florida Symphony, Atlantic Symphony, Basel Symphony, Zurich Chamber Orchestra, McGill Chamber Orchestra, and I Musici de Montreal.

Among his other compositions, a one-act opera, The Man on the Bearskin Rug, is well known and frequently performed, as is another large bass work, Silent Movie for solo bass with strings and harp.

Ramsier taught composition at New York University and the Ohio State University. After earning a Ph.D., he turned his attention to the study of psychoanalysis, and has since pursued a double career in psychotherapy and musical composition.  Dr. Ramsier composes, and practices psychotherapy, in Florida. His practice includes many creative and performing artists.

On my very infrequent trips to New York City, I arranged to meet with several musicians who, for one reason or another, were not coming to Chicago.  One such encounter was with composer and psychotherapist Paul Ramsier.  He agreed to see me (as an interviewer, not as a patient!) and graciously offered to hold the conversation at his home. 

To the best of my knowledge, most of my guests over the years have done more than one thing, but usually within the scope of music or other arts.  Many are both composers and teachers, others are performers and historians, and one, Cecil Effinger, was also an inventor!  Only one other (to my knowledge) has seriously ventured into the field of mental health, and that was conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli.

As we were setting up for the conversation, the topic was about the two sides of his life-work . . . . .

Paul Ramsier:    So there’s a dichotomy there of some kind.  I’ll be glad to talk about therapy.

Bruce Duffie:    Well, let’s talk about composing, and come back and do therapy later.

PR:    Okay, fine.  [Moving across the room]  Let me close that window.  I hope you’re not too warm.  There’s nothing we can do about New York noises.

BD:    Oh no.  Even in Chicago we have car horns and traffic and all that.  As long as it’s quiet it doesn’t have to be silent.

PR:    Right.

BD:    [Settling in for the discussion]  Are you primarily a composer, or primarily a therapist?

PR:    That’s an interesting question.  In some ways the professions are very similar.  When I’m composing I’m a composer, but this is, of course, at the same time that I’m doing therapy.  I’m certainly not what you would call a prolific composer.  I really haven’t written a very great deal.  I’m fortunate, though, in that what I have written has been performed and published, and lately a good deal, which in a way is a surprise to me.

BD:    Do you get enough time to compose?

PR:    No, I wouldn’t say so.  There tend to be sometimes long periods when I don’t compose, and I don’t really seek it out.  Sometimes I get an idea, and I’ll say to myself, “This is very inconvenient.  I don’t really want to be composing.  I have too many other things to do.  I have too many patients to deal with.”  But the idea won’t leave me alone, and so it begins to take precedence and I have no other choice except to find time to do it.

BD:    Did you start out as a composer, or did you start out in the medical profession?

PR:    I started out in composition as a small kid.  I was composing little tunes at the age of five or six.  Fortunately I had teachers who encouraged me in that, and I was able to write them down.  As a matter of fact, lately I’ve looked some of them up, and I think I’m going to incorporate them into some pieces perhaps for double bass and orchestra.  In a way it would be doing something for myself as child, because I am now in a position to know how to orchestrate it, and give it, let’s say, the grandiose touch that I would have liked at that age.

BD:    Why this particular interest in the double bass?

ramsierPR:    I’ve been doing this work for the double bass for so long that I haven’t thought about that particular question for a while, because it seems such an organic thing for me to do at this point.

BD:    Do you play double bass?

PR:    No.  I met Gary Karr a good twenty years ago, and I was very taken with his playing.  It was just extraordinary, and one simply didn’t expect these kinds of sounds out of the instrument.  This was a pioneering personality.  He was very young, about twenty-three at the time, and I came up with an idea and we tried it out.  He lived in the neighborhood and would come over every day when I would have a little more written.  I was able to write that piece pretty quickly.  I’m ordinarily not a very swift composer in that way.  He would egg me on, and I would egg him on.  I’d say, “You think you could do this?” and he would say, “Oh, yeah, let’s give it a try.”  So then he had an opportunity to do a premiere.  As a matter of fact, it was with the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia, and Seiji Ozawa.  I was absolutely blown away by that.  He listened to the piece and he said, “Fine.”  He said, “You can orchestrate this in a week.”  I didn’t know whether I could, but I said I could, and I did manage to do it.  I went out to Chicago to hear it, and it was very strange afternoon for me in Chicago.  It was one of those extremely overcast and rainy days, and at the moment that Gary was about to premiere this piece, suddenly there were these gales that were developing.  The canvasses were put down and everybody was very apprehensive.  But Gary rose to the occasion and it went very well, and it was, I’m glad to say, very well received.  He’s performed that piece and another piece of mine called Road to Hamelin well over a hundred times with orchestra, and many hundreds of times with piano, in recital, worldwide.

BD:    And these are the two pieces which have been recorded?

PR:    They’ve been recorded, and I think they’re probably the two pieces which are establishing a reputation for me now, at this point.

BD:    Now, you had to orchestrate it in a very quick amount of time.  You didn’t have to write it in a quick time, though, did you?

PR:    I wrote it in several weeks, actually.  I would say it took me about a month to write, which was an incredible speed for me because I tend to be rather slow.  Not when I get the original idea, but when I’m working out things, I take a lot of time.

BD:    When you’re working it out, are you in control of the pencil, or is the pencil in control of you?

PR:    That’s a terrific way to put it!  For the original idea, the pencil is in control of me.  It is an incredible feeling of inspiration.  I know that we’re careful when we talk about inspiration these days because of all kinds of thirties movies about composers being inspired, and doing the next Beethoven Ninth, but that does happen to me, and it still does.  If it doesn’t happen, I can’t write anything.  I have a certain amount of technique.  I’m pretty well-schooled in a lot of ways and I’ve done a lot of teaching, but I can’t grind out anything when I get an idea.  It’s very, very stimulating.  There’s just nothing like it, and I love the feeling!  It takes precedence over everything.  The working out of it then can become agonizing because I seem to have a third ear.  I’m very interested in communicating with the audience, and I try to listen with a third ear and ask myself, “Is this something that I might like to hear if I were sitting in an audience?”  Then I begin to simplify.  For example, I won’t simply do contrapuntal exercises to demonstrate that I can do it.  I’d just as soon take them out.  If I’m using a solo instrument I would try to keep the orchestration very light, so that it can have a range of ability to sing out.

BD:    Especially when it’s such a deep instrument.

PR:    Yes, yes, and that gave me a few problems.  Gary’s teacher, who at the time was Stuart Sankey at Juilliard, helped me a great deal with that, and I’m greatly indebted to him.  The piece is dedicated to him.

BD:    You’ve been pleased with the performances that Gary Karr has given of it?

PR:    Oh, they’re just incredible, just extraordinary!

BD:    Are you pleased with performances that other bassists have given?

PR:    Yes.  At the time that I wrote the Divertimento, it didn’t occur to me that other bassists would be able to play the piece.  It’s very, very difficult.

BD:    Did you write it to be difficult, or is that just the way it came out?

ramsierPR:    It came out that way.  It’s certainly not supposed to sound difficult, and Gary plays it with such ease, or apparently with such ease that it seems to be without any kind of complications for him.  At this point, it’s not, but it took a good many years before other bassists would tackle it.  Some of them are his students.  He’s really very generous and imparting as a teacher, but he knows.  Lately there have been a number of performers that are tackling that piece, and wrote to him.  Two of them are in Chicago.  One is Jeff Bradetich, who is teaching at Northwestern and has developed the International Society of Bassists to a very large degree, and Carol Hart, who came over a few months ago to play the piece for me.  I was very impressed with Carol.  She’s doing graduate work at Northwestern.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with performances of your other works that you’ve heard?

PR:    When I hear a work of mine it’s very difficult for me.  I think, “What am I doing here?  Am I going to be able to endure this?”  Even if it’s very good, I don’t hear it until later... if that makes any sense to you.  I file it away, and I can also go over absolutely every note, every nuance, after the fact.  If I disagree with things like tempi or interpretation, it doesn’t really matter as long as it works.  I don’t feel rigid about the way people play my music, or whether the tempo is exactly right.

BD:    [Surprised]  Just how much latitude do you allow the interpretation?

PR:    As much as the artist wants.  I’m reminded of something I read about Ravel.  He said that it didn’t matter how fast or slow his music was played.  His music is just the epitome of perfection as long as it works.  And really, that’s the way I feel about it, too.

BD:    Are there times when performers will find things in your score that you didn’t know you’d put there?

PR:    Oh, absolutely!  All the time!  And it helps to renew the initial feeling that I had about the work.  By now, I wouldn’t listen to a performance of mine unless I thought it was going to bring something interesting and new to it.  It’s as though someone else wrote the piece at this point.

BD:    You’re continuing to write?

PR:    I am continuing to write.  I’m not absolutely blown away by any ideas at the moment, however I am doing a method for the double bass with Gary Karr.  It is a little bit on the Mikrokosmos style, in that it gets more complicated as each book unfolds.

BD:    He’s suggesting the technical difficulties, and you make pieces of music around them?

PR:    Right, absolutely.  The first book is entirely in harmonics, and I would like to tell you why.  It is because it helps people get around the instrument.  He gave me a lesson on the double bass when we started this, and when I first held the bass I thought, “How am I going to get around this elephant?”  But instead of asking me to play simply open strings
which is the traditional wayhe doesn’t allow an open string until one has gotten a mastery of all of the harmonics.  This enables one to get over this enormous instrument with a certain facility, and demands relaxation.  It was about a two or three hour lesson and it was absolutely grueling, but when I finished with it I felt as though I could handle this incredibly huge instrument and feel at home with it.  There’s also a kind of vibration that this thing sends out, that just gives you a wonderfully warm feeling imaginable!  I didn’t expect that, but there it is.

BD:    There are different size basses, of course.

PR:    Yes.  I think Gary trained on a mini-bass that is smaller and looks to be between the size of a viola and a cello.

BD:    [Amazed]  A bass that’s actually smaller than a cello!

PR:    Yes, and they’re being manufactured now.

BD:    If someone is playing a slightly smaller bass, would your pieces still sound good on those, or does it have to be a full size instrument?

PR:    I think so.  Yes, I think they would sound different.  I really don’t know very much about that, and I don’t need to.

BD:    I assume a lot of high schools use three-quarter size instruments.

PR:    They may well.  I really don’t know.  But the bass has such a special sound to me that if I hear that, it certainly doesn’t matter which size is used, or whether a German bow is used or a French bow, or all the kinds of things that bassists seem to be so preoccupied with.

BD:    You just want the music out?

PR:    Yes.  I want the music to come out.  And I’m very glad to see that more soloists are emerging for the bass, because it’s really such uncharted territory.  It’s an opportunity for composers to pioneer it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask the big, philosophical question.  Is music art, or is music entertainment?

PR:    That’s pretty philosophical in a cosmic way, isn’t it?  I don’t know that there can be any kind of a simple answer.

ramsierBD:    Well, where is the balance?

PR:    I don’t know.  All I can say is I certainly like to be entertained, and that means anything that turns me on.  That, to me, is really entertainment.  I don’t know that I’m embellishing on your question in any particularly meaningful way.

BD:    That’s all right.  The two bass pieces of yours that I have heard seem to be more melodic than some music coming out today.  Is this a conscious effort, or is this just the way it has to be for you?

PR:    It’s the way it has to be for me.  I don’t really know why that is.  I have trained as a composer in a great many different methods and styles
including twelve-tone and electronicbut this is really what I like to write.

BD:    What else have you produced besides the two pieces for bass?

PR:    I’ve done chamber music, and I have a one-act opera that sometimes is performed around the country in colleges, The Man on the Bearskin Rug.  I can’t quite remember when that was written.  I think it was in the sixties.  I wrote it with James Elward, who had done a lot of work as a television soap opera writer.  I liked that because first of all I was hoping that it would be done on television.

BD:    Was it?

PR:    Not in New York, so far as I know.  By the way, I often don’t hear about performances until well after the fact, and sometimes never!  Anyway, he turned out a libretto that I was really able to relate to very easily.  It’s quite dramatic and moves fast, and it was really a thrill to hear it.  I didn’t hear it for five or six years after it was published, and its first performance with orchestra was in Columbus with the Columbus Symphony.

BD:    How long a work is it?

PR:    It’s about forty minutes.

BD:    So then, it’s half an evening?

PR:    Half an evening, yes.

BD:    Would you want it on the same bill as another contemporary work, or would you rather have it done with Pagliacci or Orfeo, or something like that?

PR:    It makes absolutely no difference to me at all.

BD:    What about the rest of your music?  Would you rather it be on all contemporary concerts, or on mixed bills?

PR:    Mixed bills, definitely.  When I think of all-Bach performances or all-Chopin performances, for example, I’m not so sure that’s fair to the composer to expect the audience to retain its enthusiasm throughout an entire evening.

BD:    What do you as a composer expect from the audience that comes to hear a piece of yours?

PR:    If they come away with anything that they liked about it, that’s terrific.  In the case of my music, they certainly don’t need to take a course in it before listening to it.  [Laughs]

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Do you feel you have to take a course in order to understand a lot of modern music?

PR:    Well, yes.  I certainly wouldn’t want to have to take a course in a composer’s music in order to go to their concert and hopefully to enjoy it.

BD:    What do you feel is the purpose of music in society?

PR:    Now I feel like a therapist a little bit, because as a therapist, I have the privilege of entering into the inner world of another person.  Jung would say that the collective unconscious would determine whether or not an audience could relate to a piece of music, a painting, a piece of sculpture, a work of art, and for him that determines the viability of the work.  So he was certainly into the concept of communication to a wide variety of people.  If there is anything about my work that appeals or even entertains, then that’s fine.  The reason for me that it is so difficult to answer your question is because music is so abstract a form of communication that in spite of everything that’s written about it or said about it, it is not that easily pinpointed in terms of why it is that people relate to it.  In the case of a painting, it’s easier to see.  I am going to digress just a bit...

BD:    That’s all right.

PR:    As children we’re given the opportunity to explore a painting in a more direct way than we are with music.  We are allowed to be creative people in art in public school.  We’re given paints, we’re given brushes and we’re told to express ourselves.  If we paint that tree, we’re going to paint that tree without a great deal of technique, perhaps, but in an emotional way that we happen to see it at the moment.  With music it’s a little bit different.  The means of teaching music are much more rigid, and as far as I’m concerned, less creative, because we’re not taught notation.  This shouldn’t be as difficult and mysterious as the Koran to learn.  It’s very simple.  If we were taught notation, perhaps it could help facilitate creativity in music.  I wonder sometimes whether that’s responsible for the fact that the general population is able to appreciate and understand art that is fairly advanced, but not music.  I don’t know where the general level of appreciation is in terms of what is
contemporary, but I know that for many people contemporary is Debussy and Ravel.  I think that if we were helped to become creative and given the language and the tools as children, we would begin to appreciate music, perhaps, in its more experimental stages, its more contemporary stages, its more individual stages, than we do now. 

BD:    This would help us understand the purpose of music better?

PR:    I wish I knew that.  If I knew the purpose of music I might know why I’m doing it, but I don’t.  It was just something that I seem to have been motivated to do, even as a child.  I was not brought up in a household that had very much accessibility to music, but I was helped by people in the community at an early age.  I’m very fortunate.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

PR:    Oh, sure.  I don’t know what direction it’s likely to take.  I believe that a certain amount of experimentation in music has already been discarded by the public, and it only remains to be seen in future generations what the outcome will be.  And since I’m not going to be around, I just simply can’t worry about that.  [Laughs]

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

PR:    Learn how to sell your work.  Isn’t that strange?  But I really feel, both as a therapist and as a composer, that it is not enough to be talented.  One has to fit one’s efforts into the atmosphere of an enterprise, like anything else.

BD:    So you’re assuming that they will have a product that’s worth selling?

PR:    Yes, that has to be understood to begin with... unless they are willing simply to write for its own sake.  This is very, very hard to deal with as an artist, although I do know artists who are doing that and there are personal consequences from that.  But a composer’s work is not realized until it is performed by others, unless they perform it themselves.  It is incredibly difficult simply to emerge on the scene as a talented composer and immediately get performances or get heard.  It is, perhaps, the composer’s dream and the American dream, but it doesn’t necessarily work with a great deal of facility.  In fact, one of the great difficulties in being any kind of a creative person is how to separate the part of oneself that does the marketing from the sensitive inner side that has to be able to remain free of those particular slings and arrows of the marketplace, so to speak.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In the other half of your life you are a therapist.  Do you deal especially with artists?

PR:    I’m a generalist because I was trained in a general way, but probably because I am a published and performed artist, I have attracted patients who are also performing artists.  I think that’s appropriate because I certainly know what some of the problems are.

BD:    What are some of the recurring problems that you have in your work as therapist for artists? 

ramsierPR:    Of course every person is quite different, but there are about three different types of problems that I encounter.  I have almost touched on it before, but I might go into that in a slightly different way.  One would be the artist who is perhaps not going to get performed or have their work shown.  I help them with how to deal with that.  The next might be the artist that has recognition but absolutely no income.  Strange as that may seem, there is an assumption that if you’re famous in this country, that you automatically make a living and a pretty good one.  But that’s not always the case, especially in the case of composers and poets, certainly.  Painters, by the way, tend to go in a different category.  If they get any recognition at all, they might be able to make their living as painters because the work is realized and it has some value on the market if the artist becomes even half way well known.  This is not true for a composer who may have to teach or might have to conduct.  This is not full-time composing, when somebody has to teach or conduct.  So there is certainly a group of artists that have some recognition but barely enough money to live on.  That’s a terrible thing in our society, and dealing with that is difficult.  One might say they’re in the category of the poor and famous.  [Both laugh]  The third category would be creative artists or even performing artists who have attained a good deal of recognition, and are obsessed, so to speak, with how to maintain that.  A painter, for example, might find that as long as they supply the point of view that the gallery wants, everything is fine.  But what if something organic in them says, “Well, hey, let’s try something else.”  How do they handle that?  So that’s certainly a problem.  Another problem is the sense that many artists have that if they are not successful they’re somehow looked down upon, and I think that’s quite true.  When they’re not successful they’re seen as perhaps crazy or weird or bitter.  When they become successful, they’re suddenly delightfully eccentric.

BD:    And they haven’t changed a bit!

PR:    And they haven’t changed a bit!  In fact, they may have become even more so, or even worse.  Then, since dealing with all of this both on the level of being an artist and a sales person and trying to fit into society, sometimes it’s very hard to have relationships.  An artist may come in with a relationship problem and then get into some of this other stuff we’re talking about.  As a matter of fact, some of the great theorists in psychology were not particularly helpful to the practitioner.  Freud, regardless of his incredible contributions to the practice of psychotherapy, took a rather dim view of the artist as being a person whose pursuits led him pretty close to a state of pathology.  One wonders why he would have made those kinds of remarks or written in such a way, because he was certainly an artist himself.  Anyone who’s ever read any Freud has come into contact with an incredible artist, an incredible writer.  So there is a little bit of negativity within the profession in dealing with artists, or their problems are simply seen as internal, without these external factors impinging on development.

BD:    Being an artist and psychotherapist, can you help turn the tide a little bit, and maybe contribute to psychotherapy and the understanding of it?

PR:    I haven’t written on the subject, although I may start to do a little bit of that, and hopefully, yes.  Well, I’d have to think about that more, but it seems to me that after a dozen or so years of experience of being a psychotherapist, perhaps there is something that I can help other therapists to see in terms of dealing with artists and their problems.

BD:    Have you been successful in a number of cases in solving the problems for your patients?

PR:    Yes.  Psychotherapy is the awareness business.  If people understand themselves, if they understand their relationship to the world, their family, whatever, then change can begin to occur.  There is something in common in doing therapy and in composing in that you deal on an emotional level, and you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.

BD:    Are there ever times when you put a mirror on the couch and psychoanalyze the image that you see?

PR:    Oh, Bruce!  [Laughs]  I had a classical psychoanalysis, but that’s not a bad idea.  Yes, I guess I do that.  When I don’t do that, or when I have problems
because all of us have a part of ourselves that we can’t seeI have colleagues who know me well and are able to simply zero in on that part, and that’s very helpful.  But I am very, very privileged in being a therapist, and able, hopefully, to be an artist in that field as well.

BD:    Looking at various kinds of human beings that you see walking the face of the earth, what kind of person is going to be better equipped to deal with himself as an artist successfully?

PR:    I would have to give that a great deal of thought.  So many different individuals come to mind, and artists are always going to have problems in dealing with one’s self in terms of society.  But artists are, after all, the people who give thought to those problems, outside of the incredible levels of conformity that one is supposed to accommodate in any society.

BD:    You started out as a musician and were working as an accompanist at the ballet.  When did you get the idea to go into the medical profession?

PR:    Well, I’m not an M.D.  I was teaching composition at the university level and had recently gotten a Ph.D. in music.  One day I came downstairs to the office and one of the secretaries said, “Congratulations, Dr. Ramsier, you’re in Category II of the graduate school.”  I asked what that meant and she said, “You get to supervise doctoral dissertations.”  I said, “No way!  I’m not sure I really want to do that,” and she said, “Oh, nonsense!  Everybody wants to do that.”  I don’t know if that necessarily would have happened.  I might have found some way of wiggling out of it, although the problem is that I’m very adaptable and I could have done it.  At the same time, for years I had been wanting to explore the possibility of studying psychology.  So I went to the psychology department of this wonderful, big university, which in fact, it was, and treated me very well.  I have absolutely no complaints about the way I was treated.  They said, “Since you’re a member of the graduate school, it would be a conflict of interest to study psychology here.”  During that summer I came back to New York and thought about what I wanted to do.  I really wanted to study psychology, and my colleagues said, “You’ve got to be out of your mind.  Your tenure looks like it’s going to happen and you can do all the composing you want.  You can be a full-time composer.”  I thought I can’t be a full-time composer, but whether I can or can’t, this is something that I want to do.  So, I gave it up and I got retrained, and went back to school and started practicing.  It took me about seven years to build up a practice and I’m very glad that I did it.  The strange part of it is that I looked at an old yearbook a few years ago.  It was from junior high school, so I dusted it off and it said, “When I grow up I want to be a psychiatrist and a musician.”  Isn’t that astounding?  I had totally forgotten that.  People ask me if that is really true, and it really is!  [Laughs]

BD:    Now you’ve got both.

PR:    Yes.  The good thing about being a psychotherapist is that when I leave it for the day I go to music fresh.  That did not happen before.  Even though working with the New York City Ballet was a fantastic experience that I would never dream of re-doing, I would be exhausted when I came home.  I really couldn’t do any composing at all.  The clamor of the ballet studio simply took too much out of you, musically.  Yet there can be clamor of a different kind in the therapist’s office, but I can leave that and I can work on some of my own stuff, or I can listen to music, and it all sounds fresh, like the Ravel that I described a little while ago.

BD:    Does being a composer make you a better psychologist?

PR:    I don’t know, but there seems to be the possibility and the willingness to go into strange territory and unusual territory, and I like the idea.  I don’t seem to avoid it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s go back to the ideas of music.  What are some of the ideas that you feel have contributed to greatness in music?

ramsierPR:    First I would have to know what greatness is.  Is greatness what I’m told greatness is?  Is Beethoven great?  Yes, sure, Beethoven’s great.  I picked Beethoven as an example because I’m not always taken well with Beethoven.  I can say that without too much apology because Stravinsky didn’t like Beethoven.  I had the privilege of working with Stravinsky when I was a staff pianist at the New York City Ballet, many, many years ago.  And some great music became great for me when I was able to analyze it as a music student, and some didn’t.  I can only say whatever greatness is appeals to me on an emotional level.  That’s all.  The intellectual, per se, is not for me.  It’s fine if it’s for somebody else.  For example, I’ve always liked Ravel, but when I hear it, it comes to me as such a fresh expression, such incredible perfection, that I think, “How could a mere mortal have written this?”  Then I think, “Why did it take so long for Ravel to catch on?”  A lot of scholars have been just paying him lip service until lately, and maybe they are still, but one certainly hears it a lot.  For some reason, it’s taken this long for it to communicate.  It’s ravishing, and everything that I hear of his is.  So for me that’s so incredibly great.  Now somebody else might say that Wagner is incredibly great, and I would agree.  I sat at the Metropolitan and heard a number of Wagner operas, and felt that my life has been changed, but I was never sure whether it was for the better!  [Laughs]  I can’t tell you why, and I’m not knocking Wagner, but it doesn’t matter because he’s already got plenty of supporters.

BD:    How long were you a pianist with the New York City Ballet?

PR:    For about five years.  That was fun because Balanchine and Robbins are such phenomenal creative people.  Balanchine’s sense of music was quite special.  I learned from him that it helps for a choreographer to be able to read music.  Now that may seem like a foregone conclusion, but that is by no means necessarily the case.  Some will play a recording of something over and over and over developing counts, but the fact that Balanchine could take a score and follow a recording with it, or a new score and follow it with a pianist and work it out that way facilitated things tremendously.  He was able to free himself of the notion simply of counts, and get into the spatial elements, the timbral elements
how to go with those or to oppose them.  So that was quite an experience.  Then I taught choreography for a while at NYU, although I don’t know how to dance because it turned out that way.  I really did it in relation to music, but we would develop exercises so that everybody had to learn how to read music.  It’s not very hard to follow a score.  One summer I went out with Martha Hill for the National Regional Ballet Guild.  We did these exercises just in a few days with choreographers around the country.  It was one of the most wonderful teaching experiences I’ve ever had because I learned so much from it.

BD:    Have you written music for your own instrument, the piano?

PR:    Almost none.  Very little.

BD:    Do you write music for the dance.

PR:    I have written for the dance, yes.  I wrote something for Ballet Theater, but I never saw it.  It was done on tour, and I was here working in New York and didn’t get a chance to get to it.  The choreography was by William Dollar.  I love the dance.  I’m a rather theatrical composer to begin with, and maybe that’s one of the things that appeals to me about Gary Karr.  He certainly knows how to communicate with an audience, and the ideas get to be kind of theatrical.

BD:    Will you eventually do a ballet or some piano music?

PR:    Sure, I might.  What has to happen for me is that I like to work in a kind of a collaboration with other people.  I can’t just sit in my ivory tower and come up with an abstract piece for its own sake.

BD:    So you don’t view composition, at least for you, as a solitary thing?

PR:    No.  First of all, it’s too isolated for me.  I like to be working with other people.  Composing is a pretty isolated profession, anyway.

BD:    So you only pick things that are collaborative, either working with a soloist or choreographer?

PR:    Right.  Last night, in one of the rare occasions that I was able to get away from my practice, I heard a wonderful young violist by the name of Rosemary Glyde.  That instrument has not been really explored in any great depth.  There are some very great pieces written for it, but there’s an awful lot more that can come out, and I’m kind of attracted to it.  I don’t know what this may mean or whether anything will happen, but the only way it could happen is if I were working with a violist so I would be able to try things out or get ideas.  And also I’m afraid that the personality of the performer has to be an enthusiastic one, someone that’s willing to try some different things in order to stimulate me.

BD:    How do we get more working musicians to be interested in new music?

PR:    The working musicians will be interested in new music when the audience is interested in new music, and the boards of directors of musical organizations feel that they can dare to risk modern music on the audiences.  I can understand their point of view.  I know that a lot of orchestras are going under and having a terribly hard time.  There is great nervousness about putting something in front of the public that they may not go out whistling or thinking is absolutely wonderful.  So something has to change about that.  The care and feeding of composers should be at the forefront of thinking among foundations.  The National Endowment of the Arts should do even more.  These are not the easiest times for that.

BD:    Is composing fun?

PR:    When I get an idea and begin to try to put it down it is difficult because the idea is really a number of ideas coming at once, and in a way the complete work is suggested.  Then there is something that is a lot of fun about it, even though the times when that happens seem to be terribly inconvenient to me.  I feel somewhat possessed when that happens, and I know that I walk around and probably talk to myself.  I get the pencil, but the manuscript is so hideous that I can barely read it the next day.  Then the working out of it can be agony.  I become obsessive about orchestration details, and my perfection fantasies intrude.  I wonder if I can turn this phrase the right way, and if it doesn’t work right then it bothers me for a week.  I can’t just simply leave it and say, “The hell with it.  This is artistic license,” or, “Who’s going to know?” or, “Is this going to sound like some other composer?”  I’m always amused when my work is compared to other people’s, or they say that this has to be the influence, or it sounds like so-and-so.  I’ve come to kind of laugh about that because it’s never usually the right one!  [Laughs]

BD:    When you’re working on a piece, how do you know when to put the pencil down?  How do you know when you’re finished tinkering with it?

PR:    When I get so tired that I can’t do anything else but put the pencil down.  It’s the only way that I know. 

BD:    Do you know when it’s ready to be launched on the world?

PR:    I had a publisher once that accused me of sticky fingers.  He said, “It’s not War and Peace.”  So now I’m a lot more flexible about it rather than holding on to it.  I’ll just make a decision, sometimes one out of many obsessive notions that I have about where the piece should go.  Then it has to be finished, and I’ll put it away for a few weeks and then look at it again and make some corrections.  But it seems to be different for each piece, and really it has to do with a deadline.  If I’m forced into a deadline then the thing gets finished fast, and I’m usually more satisfied with it because it hasn’t been labored.  I don’t like it to sound labored.  Naturally, nobody would want it to sound labored.

BD:    Thank you for spending some time with me today.

PR:    Thank you.  It’s been very stimulating!  You brought out a lot of thoughts that I really didn’t know I had.


© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at his home in New York City on March 26, 1988.  Portions (along with recordings) were broadcast on WNIB in 1997.  This transcription was made in 2015, 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.

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.