Composer / Psychotherapist Paul
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
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
As we were setting up for the conversation, the topic was about the two
sides of his life-work . . . . .
So there’s a dichotomy there of some kind.
I’ll be glad to talk about therapy.
Well, let’s talk about composing, and come back
and do therapy later.
fine. [Moving across the room] Let me close that
hope you’re not too warm. There’s nothing we can do about New
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.
in for the discussion] Are you primarily a composer, or primarily
PR: That’s an
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?
PR: 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?
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
been pleased with the
performances that Gary Karr has given of it?
they’re just incredible, just extraordinary!
BD: Are you
pleased with performances that other bassists have given?
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?
PR: 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
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.
[Surprised] Just how much latitude do you allow the
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?
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.
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
suggesting the technical
difficulties, and you make pieces of music around them?
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 way — he
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
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.
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.
[Amazed] A bass that’s actually smaller than
PR: Yes, and
they’re being manufactured now.
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
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?
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?
pretty philosophical in a cosmic
way, isn’t it? I don’t know that there can be any kind of a
BD: Well, where is
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.
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
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 electronic — but
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?
about forty minutes.
BD: So then,
it’s half an evening?
PR: Half an
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.
about the rest of your
music? Would you rather it be on all contemporary concerts, or on
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
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
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
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...
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.
would help us understand the purpose of music better?
PR: I wish I
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?
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]
advice do you have for younger
composers coming along?
PR: Learn how
to sell your work. Isn’t that strange? But I really feel,
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
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
PR: 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
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
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
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?
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?
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
of us have a part of ourselves that we can’t see — I
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
therapist, and able, hopefully, to be an artist in that field as well.
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
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.
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
the secretaries said, “Congratulations, Dr. Ramsier, you’re in
Category II of the graduate school.” I asked what that meant and
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
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
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.
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
you’ve got both.
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
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.
being a composer make you a
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?
PR: 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
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
lip service until lately, and maybe they are still, but one
certainly hears it a lot. For some reason, it’s taken this long
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
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?
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
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
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?
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
things that are collaborative, either working with a soloist or
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
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
BD: How do we
get more working musicians to be
interested in new music?
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
more. These are not the easiest times for that.
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
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
about that because it’s never usually the right one!
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
I’ll just make a decision, sometimes one out of many obsessive notions
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.
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
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.