Composer Bernard Rands
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Through more than a hundred
published works and many recordings,
Bernard Rands is established as a major figure in contemporary music.
His work Canti del Sole,
premièred by Paul Sperry, Zubin Mehta and the New York
won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize in Music. His large orchestral suites Le Tambourin won the 1986 Kennedy
Center Friedheim Award. Conductors including Barenboim, Boulez, Berio, Maderna,
Muti, Ozawa, Rilling, Salonen, Sawallisch,
von Dohnanyi, and Zinman, among others, have programmed his
music. [Note: Names which are
links refer to interviews by Bruce Duffie elsewhere on this website.]
The originality and distinctive character of his music have been
variously described as ‘plangent lyricism’ with a ‘dramatic intensity’
and a ‘musicality and clarity of idea allied to a sophisticated and
elegant technical mastery’ - qualities developed from his studies with
Dallapiccola and Berio.
Rands served as Composer-in-Residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra
for seven years, from 1989 to 1995 as part of the Meet The Composer
Residency Program for the first three years, with 4 years continued
funding by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Rands’ works are widely
performed and frequently commercially recorded. His work, Canti d’Amor, recorded by
Chanticleer, won a Grammy Award in 2000.
Born in England, Rands emigrated to the United States in 1975 becoming
an American citizen in 1983. He has been honored by the American
Academy and Institute of the Arts and Letters; Broadcast Music, Inc.;
the Guggenheim Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; Meet
the Composer; the Barlow, Fromm and
Koussevitsky Foundations, among many others. In 2004, Rands was
inducted to the American Academy of Arts & Letters.
Recent commissions have come from the Suntory concert hall in Tokyo;
the New York Philharmonic; Carnegie Hall; the Boston Symphony
Orchestra; the Cincinnati Symphony; the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the
Philadelphia Orchestra; the B. B. C. Symphony Orchestra; the National
Symphony Orchestra; the Internationale Bach Akademie; the Eastman Wind
Ensemble and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Many chamber works have
resulted from commissions from major ensembles and festivals from
around the world. His chamber opera, Belladonna,
was commissioned by the Aspen Festival for its fiftieth anniversary in
A dedicated and passionate teacher, Rands has been guest composer at
many international festivals and Composer-in-Residence at the Aspen and
Tanglewood festivals and was Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music at
Recent works include "chains like
the sea" commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and dedicated
to Maestro Lorin Maazel, which was premiered in the Fall of 2008; Adieu, premiered by the Seattle
Symphony in December, 2010 in honor of Gerard Schwarz's farewell
season; and Three Pieces for Piano,
which was premiered in December, 2010 by renowned pianist Jonathan Biss
who took the piece on a subsequent tour through Europe and the US
including the work's Carnegie Hall debut in January, 2011. His opera Vincent
debuted to critical acclaim at Indiana University Opera Theatre in
April of 2011, conducted by Arthur Fagen and directed by Vincent
Liotta. Rands' latest orchestral work Danza
premiered with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May of 2011, led by
the composer's longtime friend and collaborator Maestro Riccardo Muti.
In December of 1993, Bernard Rands was in Chicago for performances of
his music by the Chicago Symphony conducted by Pierre Boulez. He
would subsequently be comissioned by the CSO for other works which
would be premiered under Boulez, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo
Muti. [See next box below.]
It was during that first visit that we arranged to meet at his
apartment for an interview. While we were getting set up to
record our conversation, I mentioned that he was approaching his
sixtieth birthday, so that is where we began . . . . .
Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this time?
I’ve never put the two together. It’s a fact that I will be sixty
next year, but I’m also very happy with my position in the
profession. I don’t think about that very much, but inasmuch as I
do at all, I’ve been able to accomplish a great deal of work that I
wanted to accomplish — and not without some
success, meaning that my work has access to those media for performance
that I would hope they would have. So in general, yes, I’m very
BD: Is it
important to you that your works be performed by major orchestras as
well as lesser orchestras?
BR: I love
orchestras of all kinds. Obviously there’s a great excitement
involved with working with the top professional orchestras. It’s
a challenge in every way. It’s a challenge when one’s composing
and it’s a challenge during the preparation and the rehearsals.
The end result is usually a very, very satisfactory one. There’s
a different ambiance about what you call lesser orchestras. I
think it’s wonderful to work with musicians wherever they’re collected
together according to their abilities. Individually one gets a
result that is in a different way satisfying for them and for the
audiences and for me. No, I don’t feel that everything I have to
do is geared to the top five, so to speak, but it’s great fun working
with them, of course.
mentioning names, when you get to that top level is there any real
appreciable difference between one orchestra and another?
BR: If there
are appreciable differences at all, they’re to do not with quality but
with aspects of sound — their particular way of
collectively playing and thinking. That becomes fascinating
because there are differences. I would hate that all the major
orchestras would sound just alike. Of course it depends, too,
who’s on the podium at the time, but that aspect of it is
fascinating. Sometimes there are little shadings, but they are
noticeable, at least to those of us who work with them on a regular
BD: So then a
great orchestra would sound different for each conductor?
BR: Yes, it
BD: Will your
piece sound appreciably different if it’s interpreted by one conductor
or another conductor?
Yes. As you know, the recording that’s just out of Le Tambourin, the work we’re doing
this week here in Chicago with Pierre Boulez, sounds very
different. Riccardo Muti is the conductor on the record with the
Philadelphia Orchestra. The orchestra sounds different from
Chicago, and Maestro Muti’s approach to the whole work is different
from Maestro Boulez. Yes, it’s the same piece of music that I
wrote, and I’m happy to hear the two interpretations.
Bernard Rands in Chicago
The following works have been programmed by the Chicago Symphony
Orchestra over the years . . .
1. Le Tambourin - Suites 1 & 2
conducted by Pierre Boulez (1993 - at the time of this interview)
2. Prelude & Sans voix parmi les
voix - (CSO commission) to celebrate the 70th birthday of Pierre
3. Apokryphos for Soprano
solo, Chorus and Orchestra (CSO commission) conducted by Daniel
4. 'Cello Concerto # 1
- Johannes Moser ('Cello) conducted by Pierre Boulez (2005)
5. Danza Petrificada (CSO
commission) conducted by Riccardo Muti and featured on the orchestra's
European tour in Paris, Luxembourg, Lucerne, Salzburg and Vienna (2011)
6. "...where the murmurs die..."
(New York Phil. commission) conducted by Christoph Eschenbach
(scheduled for December, 2013)
The following are some of the
other works performed at various times in and around Chicago . . .
Concertino for Oboe and Ensemble
- ICE Ensemble conducted by Cliff Colnot
Concertino for Oboe and Ensemble
- Univ. of Chicago New Music Ensemble conducted by Cliff Colnot
Concertino for Oboe and Ensemble
- Dal Niente Ensemble conducted by Michael Lewansky
Concertino for Oboe and
Ensemble - CSO Music Now conducted by Cliff Colnot
"Now Again" - fragments from
Sappho - Contempo conducted by Cliff Colnot
"Now Again" - fragments from
Sappho - De Paul New Music Ensemble conducted by Michael Lewansky
String Quartet # 2 -
Chicago Chamber Musicians
String Quartet # 2 - Fifth
Preludes for Piano
Memo 4 for Solo Flute -
several performances by Molly Barth
Tre Canzoni Senza Parole
- De Paul Orchestra conducted by Michael Lewansky
Tableau - Eighth
"...in the receding mist..."
- ICE Ensemble conducted by Cliff Colnot
Canti Lunatici for Soprano
& Ensemble - Chicago Chamber Musicians
you’re writing the piece, do you build in a little area for
interpretation, a little leeway, a little expansion like the expansion
gaps you would find on a road?
really. I think one tries to be as accurate and precise as one
can possibly be. We work in a very precise profession, and
there’s little room for error or latitude of any kind. However,
the whole history of our music — of notated
music, anyway — assumes that what is on the
printed page is only part of the story, and that when it comes alive
through whatever medium, it will reflect whoever is involved in making
it come alive. That’s part of the richness of the phenomenon of
music itself, and it’s part of the joy of being a musician... to sit
down and play a Schubert sonata one way, and then to hear someone else
play it another way. It’s fascinating.
BD: You used
the word “precise.”
Is it even possible for a work to ever be performed precisely?
BR: Oh, I
think so, if by “precise”
we mean that the composer’s job is to accurately chart what his or her
musical intentions are. We have a very sophisticated notation
system for that which is a couple of centuries old or more, and has
been extended through experiment in the twentieth century. So we
have that. Once that is on the page, then it doesn’t allow a
great deal of latitude. One expects, whether it’s a soloist or a
large orchestra, to respect the printed page. However, there are
shadings that come along with that — what is a
mezzo piano to this particular conductor as opposed to another one; how
pianississimo is it, at this point; all of those dynamic shadings and tempi. So even it’s marked
with a metronome number, how many people can actually strike that
number and maintain it during a five-minute period? There are all
those fluctuations that go into making a difference and an excitement
for each new performance.
BD: Would you
rather the metronome marking be so precise, or would you rather just
mark it allegro?
BR: I prefer
that it be precise, which then says what kind of allegro it can beat. There’s
a wide degree of latitude in all of those traditional markings.
That’s why we have Toscanini at this speed and Klemperer at that speed
with the same symphony.
BD: Yet if
you have marked it with a metronome number, you expect it to be the
BR: Yes, but
I think an intelligent conductor knows that’s simply narrowing down the
opportunity, and that to disregard it is, in a sense, to disrespect the
music. I’m not expecting that if I mark 72, that it begins
exactly at 72. But it’s an indication that that’s the optimum to
achieve what it is I intend.
BD: You want
it between 68 and 74, but not down around 45 or up to 110?
right. However, let me tell you an experience I had. One of
my favorite people in my whole life — unfortunately we lost him too
early — was Bruno Maderna, the wonderful Italian
musician/conductor. In the months before he died, he did a Mahler
Ninth at the Royal Albert Hall
in London that was slower than anything I’ve ever heard in my life!
and slower and slower. I think he was saying, “Look, we know how
it’s usually done and we know what Mahler asked us to do. But
listen, and isn’t it wonderful?” It was like he had a vision of
something quite different.
BD: Did it
BD: Is this,
then, really your end requirement, that it hang together?
Exactly. The calculations that one makes and the indications one
gives as a composer are those which one believes are the best to make
it hang together. However, this degree of latitude that we’re
talking about is crucial to music to make it come alive and to have it
have a different feeling each time it comes onto a program.
the composer-in-residence in Philadelphia, so you write something for
the Philadelphia Orchestra. Would it be different if you were
writing for the Chicago Symphony or for the Vienna Philharmonic?
BR: Yes and
no. Yes, in the sense that one gets to know, on a very close and
friendly basis, all members of the orchestra. One gets to admire
and love certain sounds and certain combinations that one hears in
other repertoire. And knowing them, one knows that when one gives
them an assignment in one’s own music, it will sound exactly as one
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] You mean to say you’re never surprised?
[Smiles] Well, no, I’m not very surprised, ever, in terms of
going in with a new work. However, , when I go to a new orchestra
and have not worked with them before, I’m always interested
to see how a particular soloist or a particular section
leader responds to what I’ve written, because there again, there will
be that degree of latitude, and that approach that’s not entirely
codified in the notation. It’s wonderful to be close to the
players and to know what you’re going to get and what’s available, and
who you can push to a certain limit that will produce something else
that one wants. I’ve lived with orchestras virtually since I was
a child and have had that experience. But in general I think
knowing about orchestras is probably more important in the end.
BD: Are you
BR: Yes, I
am. I have a professorship at Harvard. It doesn’t take much
of my time, but what time it does take I give willingly because it’s
part of my musicianship to teach.
BD: Are you
basically pleased with what you see coming off the pages of your
students, both now and in previous years?
BR: I have, over the
years, had some very good students, quite a number of whom have made
and are making their way professionally. They’re producing work
of substance and quality, and are getting recognition for it. So
your question has to be answered in a very specific way. If I
generalize, then I would probably have a more negative answer in the
sense that many young people now are in music studies of one kind or
another in universities and institutions of all kinds. That is
entirely valuable as a civilizing influence, as an intellectual
discipline, as a discovery for themselves and of themselves, and
hopefully bringing them to an appreciation of an art form that is so
fantastic and so wonderful and rewarding. However, it’s also very
demanding, as we’ve already said, about rigor and preciseness, and I
don’t very often see the kind of talent that I know immediately can
sustain itself. So there is an educational side which has its
value, and there is an enthusiasm and an ambition — not
a vaulting ambition, but a perfectly reasonable ambition that cannot be
realized — and that’s frustrating because one can
see that it’s not going to happen.
BD: Are we
turning out too many composers?
BR: No, I
don’t think that should even be a concern. I think we should
educate all our musicians to the best of their ability and to the best
of our ability to teach them, and let the chips fall where they may, so
to speak. There are quite a few famous instances in history where
one talented person has gone to a major figure and been told, “There’s
no way you’re going to make it.” The thing is, if everyone is
told that, won’t you go out and disprove it, and prove the masters are
wrong? That’s the way it will happen.
quantity, obviously, is increasing. Is the quality of the new
composers increasing, or is that something that even can be measured?
BR: It’s hard
to say whether it can be measured. The quantity, on the one hand,
is not any larger in proportion to opportunity in the performing media
than it was in the Baroque period or even earlier. Enormous
amounts of music were written at those times, and a lot of it was
fourth-rate and fifth-rate! Some of the third-rate still exists,
and we hear it on radio stations that play 24-hour classical
music. [Both laugh] The sad thing is in that instance that
very often those things are played when second- and first-rate
twentieth century music is available.
BD: Should we
only listen to music from the top line and maybe the next line?
Musical culture consists of all of these things. There are
moments. There are peaks of incredible achievement, and there are
others that are not without their value and their quality. But
today there is a very active creative level in music. Only time
will tell, and what survives, survives. Again, we know
historically that some of the best things often get lost until someone
else finds them.
BD: Can we
assume, though, that there is nothing that is great which is
wouldn’t have thought so anymore. Bach came perilously close to
it, but now, with the kind of archival preservation that goes on, it
would be very difficult for things to be lost.
talking a little bit about this, so what kinds of threads contribute to
the idea of greatness in a piece of music?
[Pause] To think about a piece in the abstract is already a
problem for me. But if one were to try to describe some of the
qualities, obviously I would think immediately that its structural
concerns would be elegant and completely intact, and of a strength that
sustains the nature of the musical thought. The musical thought
itself is inextricably bound with all of those things because that is
what the form consists of — its content and its ideas. One can
only look at what the repertoire is and why it’s bequeathed to us, and
why it’s sustained itself — although goodness
knows it’s under assault these days in our own culture. The
number of people who are interested to listen to a Brahms symphony or
at least come to a live concert to listen to it is rapidly decreasing.
the numbers are decreasing, but is the proportion, the percentage,
BR: I don’t
know. I’m basically an optimistic person. There are times,
however, in our profession at the moment that I feel the outside
pressures of popular culture and more banal levels of enjoyment seem to
be taking over and predominating. I’m hopeful that concert music
survive, but we must be very guarded about it. We can’t just take
for granted that because we think Beethoven’s nine symphonies are most
supreme in their attainment, that they will last.
BD: But would
we listen to, say, Two, Four and Eight if they didn’t have the label
of Beethoven on them?
BR: I think
Three, Five, Six and Nine would have an audience...
BR: No, the Seventh is the greatest of
all! [Both laugh] You see, there again that’s a matter of
opinion. If I were to be — and have — demonstrating the qualities
that are archetypically and essentially Beethovenian, I would probably
turn to the Seventh Symphony.
On the other hand, one only has to turn to the first quarter of the First to see what’s in store.
Therefore it becomes more marketplace concerns about whether this is
the ongoing development of in incredible musical mind.
genius of staring with a leading chord rather than a dominant or tonic
you’re composing and you’re putting the notes down on paper, do you
ever feel that you’re competing against the shades of Beethoven and
Brahms and all of the rest?
I don’t think any artist can carry the past on his shoulders to that
extent. I think the real challenge is to be able to stand on the
shoulders of one’s predecessors and have the courage to jump.
That jump may be a fatal one, and that’s what makes it both exciting
and nerve-wracking, but one cannot be but sustained by history.
It’s nothing to do whether ultimately posterity will judge us to be
equal or superior or inferior. It’s not to do with that at
all. It’s a case of understanding that what our predecessors were
doing was to find in themselves, and discover in themselves, the
capacities that were manifest through their work. And that’s the
same task today; it hasn’t changed.
BD: So you
feel you’re part of a lineage?
Absolutely! I will not and cannot work out of context. I’m
very, very aware of all the music that pre-dates mine. I’m
grateful for it. Otherwise, I’d be working in a vacuum.
BD: Are you
at all aware of the music that will follow yours?
BR: No, and I
can’t be because it can’t be my concern. In my own work I know
what in the short-term will follow what I’ve just finished, or what I’m
not working on because I already have my mind turned to it in many
ways. But if you mean a long-term projection — what
will it be like in 2020 — no. I can
speculate and I can make some reasonable, intelligent deductions of
what it might be, but that’s not my concern. I’m not a crystal
BD: This is
one of my favorite questions, but we’ve approached it from a little
different angle this time. Where is music going these days?
[sighs] I’m not too happy getting into that kind of speculation, but
let me say what I think is happening now, which may be some degree of
an indicator as to what will follow, at least in the short-term.
the usual route we take into the subject.
Exactly. This century has been very rich in many, many ways, and
despite a lot of the agony that audiences still find, with the large
quantity of the work, I find the music of the century extraordinarily
rich. It’s extraordinarily diverse. There have been some
radical, fundamental changes in the shift of the nature of music itself
thanks to Schoenberg and to Webern and others who followed and tried to
pursue to the logical ends and conclusions the premises that they
proposed for us. Pierre Boulez is a case in point. He has
rigorously and strictly and honestly pursued that in a very pure manner
for now fifty years and more. Because of that, our thinking about
music today is much enriched by his unwillingness to bend to any other
influences and any other seductions. However, no one person can
cope with the whole phenomenon of music. So my view is that
somewhere at every moment someone else is uncovering a little bit of
what music is, and if we’re sensitive and alert enough, we’ll benefit
by their discoveries. What has tended to happen, after the
onslaught of radicalism in the first part of the century, is that some
of the things that we thought we could dispense with — tonality, key
systems, certain intervals and so on — we’re finding more and more that
possibly that was a little rash to throw octaves out of the window, and
to do this or that or the other. Now we can never go backwards;
I’m not saying that. But what we are beginning to do again is to
reclaim some of the things that we thought were not any longer
relevant, and to integrate them in a way that is not backward-looking
but is forward-looking. Therefore we’re building again on the
shoulders of Schoenberg and Webern, and we’re adding things which their
historical position forced them into rejecting. Were they alive
today, I think they would probably have a slightly different view about
it. There are others today who have a radical view, who in turn
will find others who will take us into different paths. So there
is a return to some of the aspects of melody and harmonic function and
harmonic continuity and rhythmic development, an energy that possibly
was, if not eliminated, was reduced to minimum concern at some
points. Then, of course, the pendulum swings to the other
end. We have a minimalism about tonality — a three-chord trick —
which will get you to a major opera house. In the end, as far as
I’m concerned, that just shows the shallowness of those concerned with
that. It bastardizes a great tradition because tonality is not a
simple phenomenon. It’s certainly not a three-chord trick.
It’s such a complex phenomenon that it was able to give rise to all of
the literature that we have.
BD: So you
think that eventually, minimalism will be something to look back on and
say it was a diversion?
BR: Again, I
don’t want to pronounce judgment. All I can say is thus far, what
I’ve heard has disappointed me. I’m always anxious and alert to
new things that other people are doing. I just said a moment or
two ago that they are uncovering certain aspects that I can’t deal
with. But when I hear it, I think, “That
was well uncovered a long time ago, and much better.”
So until I hear something that really grips my imagination and
challenges my understanding, then I have to wait. But back to
your question of where it is going. Once there was a grand unity
of style, and one could fairly reasonably predict that all of the major
changes would be within that — Beethoven coming
out of Haydn, Brahms coming out of Beethoven, then Wagner and
Mahler. But now the diversity is such — and it’s a rich diversity
— that we can never again predict where anything is going because there
are too many channels. What we do not know is whether some of
them will converge or whether they will all converge. In a sense,
there’s the largest mainstream that there’s ever been. There are
people still out on the fringe, and there always will be and always
have to be, because they’re experimentalists.
there’s a mainstream of diversity?
exactly. That’s right.
BD: Is this
mainstream of diversity — the music that you
write and all of the others are writing now that gain enough
recognition to be considered — is this music for everyone?
BR: It has no
labels of exclusion, but music of any kind is only for those people who
want to access it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s my kind of music
— what we call art music, classical music — or whether
it’s jazz or rap or pop.
BD: I like
that. It’s very computer-ese — “people
who want to access it.” [Laughs]
BR: Well, you
have to. Through modern technology, we’re blasted out of our
senses by it all the time, unfortunately. But in general, one has
to make an effort to go toward it, to listen to it. To hear it is
not difficult now because we hear it all the time. There’s a
difference between hearing and listening. If we’re talking about
listening, one has to make an active effort to go to be where it is,
either live or to make an effort to sit and listen to it when it’s
reproduced through extra-acoustic means. It’s for anybody who
wants to sit down and listen. What is so sad about so much of the
twentieth century music, and the still-uneasy attitude of listeners in
general, is that somehow it has a label on it that says “it’s
not for me.” No music is for me, whoever me
is, until me makes an effort to find the Mozart and all of the other
things that we say we love and we enjoy. The greatest pleasure
comes when one is totally engaged with that music, and that doesn’t
happen unless you make an enormous effort. Similarly, music now
is not conventional in the nineteenth- and eighteenth-century
senses. It’s got different messages and different conventions of
its own now, and is also accessible once the listener has an open mind
and open ears and an open heart, and says, “I’m going on this magical
mystery tour. I’m going on this trip, and I’m going to listen
very, very carefully.” They also need to understand that they
might get lost, and that’s all right. There’s nothing wrong with
that. It’s not a sin.
BD: In the
time that you have been observing and creating music, do you find that
the hearts of the public have been opening more, or have they been
BR: I think
they’re opening. There are certain people with whom one cannot
bargain. It’s not the artist’s job to bargain with anybody...
except possibly the agents who take most of our income! [Both
laugh] No. I think a lot of people now are beginning to
realize that we’re only seven or eight years from the end of a
century. [Note: Remember, this
interview was held at the end of 1993.] So they’ve either
got to say, “This century’s been totally dead. Nothing has
happened,” — which is a preposterous notion, and
most reasonable people know that’s not the case — or, “I
have to get my act together, my listening act, and make an effort, or
it’s going to pass me by.” I think for the
most part, depending on intelligent programming and opportunity and so
on, a lot of people are finding what they thought was impenetrable, in
fact can be engaged with, can be enjoyed, can be even disliked.
But it can be entertaining in the best sense of the word — not
as a low-level entertainment, but at least it keeps you gripped by it
in one way or another until it’s over. Then you might say,
“Whew! Glad that’s over,” but you will have given it a solid try.
BD: Do you
feel that the collective attitude of the public is a little different
because the year 2000 is so close, rather than if the year 2000 were
twenty years hence?
BR: In as
much as there’s conscious thought about that, I think people are
realizing that it’s very soon, we’ll have to refer to it as, “That
music of the last century.”
BD: Is it an
artificial line of demarcation?
BR: Of course
it is, yes. On the other hand, historically some things have
happened that were of consequence round about turns of centuries.
Sure. The major revolutions in music seem to happen every three
hundred years, approximately.
mentioned a moment ago about intelligent programming. Most of us,
certainly of my age and my generation, our pieces were performed in new
music concerts by new music groups and ensembles. Occasionally an
orchestra — especially in Europe — would have the courage to do all
twentieth century music programs. That’s all well and good, and
thank God all of that happened. I was very much involved in
directing my own ensembles and conducting such concerts with
orchestras. However, we all also longed to be in more general
places. I, particularly, and I think it’s true for most, want to
be in programs where there’s a context. That context can be
beneficial, or it can be not so, and I don’t mean by comparison of
quality or anything to do with that. Let’s assume for a moment
that we’re not lying with Mozart or Haydn, and that it’s nothing to do
with that. But if the music which surrounds one’s own piece,
which is contemporary and in a contemporary idiom with contemporary
thought, is sandwiched between, or at the beginning of a program which
is followed then by Mozart and Brahms, it’s nice on the one hand to
feel that one’s music can be programmed in such distinguished
company. But it doesn’t help the listener. If it’s at the
beginning, there’s a tendency to say, “All right, now it’s over.
Let’s start the concert.” That’s the attitude of many of the
administrators, and unfortunately too many of the conductors who, when
they’re even willing to put a first piece on, do so with not very good
BD: So you
would rather be the second piece, right before intermission?
BR: This is
not necessarily to do with order in general, but the other music that’s
on the program could be chosen so that the whole thing is a
continuity. It might even be a continuity backwards, if we have
to have the grand climax of the evening with the Brahms Third Symphony, and then something
that came out of Brahms, like Schoenberg or another composer that’s got
strong attachments to the twentieth century composer, and then someone
who came out of that first generation of twentieth century composers.
looking into the wrong end of the telescope?
exactly. That way the Brahms doesn’t come as a surprise; it comes
as a revelation of the roots of everything that you’ve already been
listening to. We have to get around to doing this.
BD: Is it
then almost impossible to turn that ‘round, and have the Mozart and
then the Beethoven and then the newest?
BR: Not at
all! I think it’s perfectly possible. What I was about to
say a moment or two ago about attitudes to music is there’s no question
that there are a lot of younger people out there who, when the
opportunity comes for them to attend a symphony concert that doesn’t
cost them an arm and a leg and has some major works from the twentieth
century on it, usually the box office is pretty good. At least
that’s my experience.
BD: Let me
come to your own composing. When you’re working on a piece and
you’re putting the notes down, you go back and you look at it and you
tinker. How do you know when to put the pencil down and say, “It
is finished and is ready to be launched”?
BR: In general
terms, every composer is different in how they understand what it is
that they are grappling with and coping with, and what they’re
transcribing from their inner understanding to a series of
notations. I have a sense of the whole piece in my mind before I
begin to write it. I don’t necessarily understand all the
details, but I’d say very simply I do tend to know its scope. A
little piano piece of five minutes that occurs for whatever purpose or
reason is obviously going to be quite clear in one’s mind that it is
that proportion, whereas a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus
with texts may be fifty minutes or an hour. One knows those
simple dimensions immediately, but I think your question is a much more
complicated one to answer, and much more complex to know about.
Without getting too technical, when one understands one’s materials,
knowing what their capacity is and having explored them and exploited
them in the best sense, one knows when they have reached their
capacities. They’ve been used and they’ve said what they have to
say in that context. Usually one knows that things are now in
their right place, and that has to do with reading the music over
again. With every measure that’s added and every page that’s
added, one goes over it and over it and over it from the beginning,
performing it in one’s mind. If they’re something of a lunatic
that I am, I dance it, I sing it, I conduct it, I play it at the
piano. I do all kinds of things that gives me a sense of this is
right, this is the judgment that I’m making because formally, in all
its proportions and all its dimensions, it makes sense. It adds
up because of logic, because of conviction about it. Therefore,
it is a moment one knows. I remember seeing a very beautiful film
about Jackson Pollock. Here’s the actual painter working on a
huge canvas, maybe the size of the floor of this room, flicking
paint. He is dipping in and flicking paint here and there,
changing colors sometimes with sticks not with brushes, and the paint
is flying all over the place. What makes him flick here now,
having flicked over there? It is because this computer in his
head is calculating all of the relationships and then painting.
Then he’s backing down to the far corner, and he eventually steps out
and is finished with that kind of utterly non-representational, totally
abstract chance art. I say “chance”
guardedly. There is the degree of ambiguity about the nature of
it, in the sense that when he makes the gesture he doesn’t quite know
where the paint’s going to go. So all of that is calculated all
the time, being reviewed and reviewed and reviewed until finally it’s
there. When you look at a huge Jackson Pollock on the wall at the
Museum of Modern Art, you’re impressed by the power of its
statement. And he knew maybe one more splash would have made
something that drew attention away from everything else, or completely
distorted the proportions.
BD: In other
words that was his genius, that he was right in his painting?
BR: Yes, and
I think artists have that, and a true artist has that. It’s not
something one can learn, I don’t think. One can nurture it and
nourish it by experience, but even as an early musician making tiny
little pieces as a ten or eleven or twelve year old, whenever one
starts to compose, if one doesn’t have some sense of that inherently at
that stage, I’m not sure it can be brought into being later.
BD: You said
earlier that music has to be more precise. Can I assume, then,
that you are precise about where you put the notes on the page, and yet
when they’re played it’s almost like Pollack’s flickings, that they may
or may not land exactly where you thought?
BR: Oh, no,
no. No, that’s what I meant by a precise art. Where we put
a dot is where it sounds, and that’s what it will sound like.
BD: But it
won’t always sound precisely the same.
BR: No, it
won’t, but that’s, again, not an area over which we have any
control. It may be that this orchestra tunes to A-442, or 441,
and certainly there’s 439. It’s already changed, to an acute ear.
BD: But it
won’t be the Baroque style of 415?
BR: No, quite.
BD: When you
are writing, are you always in control of the pencil, or are there
times when the pencil seems to control your hand across the page?
BR: I don’t
have any of those early fantasies about it. I hear my music and I
write what I hear. I work on it, of course, because what one
hears first is not, every time, the right one... although a lot of the
time it is because one has to remember that the creative process does
not leave out the intellect, the critical faculty that questions what
one has heard, which is probably quite powerful and moving and even
emotionally involving. But it may also, under the scrutiny of
closer thought and subsequent thought, make it seem, yes, it’s fine,
it’s powerful, but it can be better. That degree of refinement,
which can be technical as well as in the nature of the idea itself, is
very important. But given that, no. There are times when
I’m up against deadlines that I wish the pencil would take over, damn
it! I’d like to just go to bed for an hour and get on with
it. But it’s not going to. I’m under no illusions.
been kind of orbiting around this, so let me hit you with the question
straight on. What is the purpose of music?
[Pause] Again, there’s no one answer to a very complex
question! On the one hand, I could address the question as to
what are its functions in society, once it’s in existence, and there
are myriad answers. Every culture and every society on this
planet has music, and puts it to use in many, many, many, many
ways. It’s interesting that there is not a society that does not
have music. There are societies that are missing lots of other
things that we in other cultures maybe think are essential, but
everybody has music. So first of all, it says something about
what music is as a phenomenon, and what the human need is for it.
So I don’t have to enumerate any of the functions that it fills in
church and in society in general and so on. From the creative
point of view, it’s a way of exploring one’s self. I write for
myself, and I’ll qualify that in a moment, because in doing so — and I
don’t want to sound hokey about this — I get in touch with areas of my
own being which I wouldn’t otherwise know. I might have access to
other aspects of myself were I to be a draftsman or an architect or a
farmer, but I do what I do, and that allows me to explore these areas.
BD: You don’t
feel you’re a little bit draftsman or a little bit architect or a
little bit farmer in all of this?
Maybe. It’s possible, but I don’t make any false claims for
it. Creating music means you start with a blank page and
eventually there is music on it, which is then played. Then
someone comes up to you and says, “Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Yes, enjoyed it. I loved what you did,” or comes up and says, “I
don’t quite understand. I found it a little strange, but there’s
something about it.” I put myself in touch with an area of myself
that I would not otherwise be in touch with, and when I offer my music
to an audience, I offer them the same opportunity to be in touch with
an area of themselves that they wouldn’t otherwise be. That, for
me, is the main role of music of all kinds.
BD: Now, you
said you write for yourself...
[Remembering] Oh yes, I said I was going to qualify it, didn’t
I? Thank you for the prompting. It’s a statement that I
know raises the hackles on some people, and they think, “Well,
there goes another twentieth century artist completely ignoring the
public or the audience, and not caring and so on, and why should we
bother?” That’s not what I mean at all;
it’s not my intent. My intent is to say I will not be separated
from the rest of society, and I certainly won’t be separated from the
human race, the species, because I’m a composer. The assumption
that somehow I’m different from anyone else is an assumption that can
only be justified on the basis of difference of physique, opportunity
and good fortune and all the rest of it. But I believe that
everyone who is willing has the same access to my music, and to a
unique experience of their own from it, as I have in offering it.
Therefore, if I’m true to myself, if I’m honest and don’t cheat myself
and completely and always monitor my best instincts and best
intentions, then I think it’s accessible and it’s available. It’s
not the music that’s trying to be exclusive or esoteric. It’s got
none of those concerns at all. It’s trying hard to say, “Look,
let me tell you something in as simple a way that as it’s possible to
tell you this thing.” Sometimes here it is straightforward, and
other times here it is but we’re going to have to think about it, to
listen and give it further thought.
BD: So you
expect that your pieces will provide more depth when you hear them a
third and a fifth and a twentieth time?
BR: I think
if an artist were to abandon that, we would be abandoning probably the
crucial and central concern of our activity. Unfortunately we
live at a time, in a civilization and culture where instant is
uppermost. People have an attention span, at the moment, that’s
not very long, and it certainly is not all too readily willing to
suspend judgment. Often we hear judgment before our understanding
has even begun. So my plea is to listen. Now there are
certain people, if they feel rejected for whatever reason rightly or
wrongly the first time, don’t come back. One can’t
legislate. There’s nothing one can do about it. But I don’t
believe most people are that way. Those who are interested in the
kind of music that we’re talking about, in general, will be
willing. Not only are they willing, but they have to have the
opportunity, which means programming, again, as we talked a moment ago,
in such a way that they have the opportunity. I believe then one
does begin to uncover more of what’s in a piece. Let’s not forget
that in whatever medium — but
particularly music, it being such an abstract art — when
we think we’ve understood all that we’ve put into it, we are in a sense
deluding ourselves, because for every listener that has contact with it
there will be another meaning. That meaning may sometimes even be
irrelevant, but it’s not irrelevant to that listener. The thing
is that if one can define the message of the music in such a way that
it’s clear — at least clear enough that it
should not give rise to irrelevancies on a regular basis — then
one has accomplished a particular task or feat already. Then,
listeners in turn should respect what is being, and not let it always
provoke irrelevant responses, but try to stay with it and understand
it. Then it begins to reveal things that even the composer might
not have known. We don’t know everything that’s in our
music. Beethoven didn’t know everything that was in his
music. How could he?
BD: Would you
be horrified or even feel that you had failed if a piece of yours is
played and everyone in the hall reacts exactly the same way?
[Laughs] It would be a very, very strange experience. I’ve
never had it, thus far. It’s been close sometimes, when they’ve
all reacted and thought it was weird. They were pretty irritated
by it! But no, that’s not going to happen, probably.
BD: That says
everybody’s missed it, then.
happened to many people over the years. What’s so wonderful about
it is that one knows there is a labyrinth, an extremely complex
labyrinth of response that’s going on, and one can never know what it
is. I would urge people who are in any way nervous or tentative
about approaching new things in music, first of all, not to assume that
there is a way to hear it. The piece will make its premises clear
if it’s a good piece, and once you try to understand those premises,
stay with its following of them. But the responses are as many as
there are listeners, and people should not feel inferior or inadequate
if they approach a piece that they don’t understand immediately.
Thank God they don’t see through it, or hear through it, the first time
through. Get enough from it that it makes you curious and wanting
to engage with it again. If one does do that, the odds are it
will reward you a second time and a third time and more. The
reason that you keep coming back to those things we now call
masterpieces — I don’t like the term, but that’s what they are; they’re
the very best — is because they have those qualities.
BD: Let us
turn the page. Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the
BR: Oh, the
joys are almost 99.9 percent of it. The sorrows are when the
person who is giving the first performance has the flu the night
before. [Both laugh] It’s a precarious thing. I don’t
want to call it an instrument because in a way it confuses the
issue. I like to think of the voice as a voice. I love
writing for the human voice. I love the singing voice and I love
the speaking voice, and I love the voice that has the non-verbal
communication — all the laughs and the cries and
the sighs and sniffles and the coughs — that
kind of vocal behavior which carries a lot of information with it and
tells us a lot about a person even before they speak, before we
understand their dialect, before we understand where they’re from and
even what their sentence has to say. So for me, the whole area of
vocal behavior is fascinating. I love poetry, and I think that
one of the noblest expressions of the human voice is the voice reading
poetry and performing poetry.
BD: So there’s an
innate musicality to that?
Yes. I read poetry on the page a lot, and I have since I was a
child. I spend almost as much time doing that as I do composing.
you’re a composer who is used to looking at the black dots on the page
and the white spaces in between and hearing it in your inner ear, I
wonder if you would read a poem and hear it differently than someone
who is not used to that kind of transference.
well be. I wouldn’t say we have an advantage, but we might well
have a different approach to it. I tend to read out aloud quite a
lot, too. It’s part of the lunacy that I referred to
earlier. I have a collection of recordings of poets reading their
work — not only their own, but the work of other poets — because
I love to hear how someone brings the printed page to life with the
language and all that that carries.
BD: Let me
ask a speculative question. Are there, perhaps, poems that are so
complete that you could not add anything to them; that any music you
would add would be a detraction?
are, and in my own experience there are ones that I have been drawn to
for a long, long time, and have nervously put off dealing with for that
very reason. They seem hermetically sealed in their perfection,
or whatever quality is about them that says any music would be an
intrusion. On the other hand, for one or two of those that I’ve
held in that kind of reverence, I have broken the rule for myself and
eventually taken up the challenge to try to deal with it on the basis
that the poem has its own integrity and its own authority and its own
elegance and its own life, both on the printed page and in performance
reading. But if I invite it into a musical context, I’m taking
the liberty. The poet is giving me the liberty, either through an
agent or through the fact that he’s out of copyright, and
then the onus is on me to respect it to the best of my ability, or,
because it’s a living poet that I know, that I’ve been in
correspondence with, who has given me permission. I then have the
right to take it wherever I want to take it and wherever it will lead
me. Therefore, if I see the outcome of that process as something
different from the poem, then I don’t feel that I’m violating its
premises or its territory.
BD: So they
should each stand alone, rather than always being one or the other?
BR: Yes, I
think that’s right. But when one’s finished with a work that
involves literature — the poem in this case
— the outcome is not purely poetry and it’s not purely
music. It’s something else. That way the poem is then not
set to music as a kind of almost demeaning or even elevating way.
It is inviting all of the aspects of the poem to contribute to another,
third quality, which is neither poetry nor pure music.
BD: One of
your poetic settings won a special award. What has been the very
real effect upon you about holding the Pulitzer Prize?
[Sighs] I’m involved enough in my profession to know how a lot of
my colleagues feel and behave, and how the whole profession spins its
wheels, shall I put it that way? Apparently there is a specific
day each year when the Pulitzer Prizes are announced, and being a
journalistic sponsored prize, they’re announced only on the
radio. It’s usually, I gather, around eleven to eleven-thirty on
this particular day. I had no knowledge of this whatsoever.
I didn’t even know I had been nominated. They found me at six
o’clock in the evening, when most of the hubbub and flurry of
interviews was going on, and I phoned home. I was in New York
City working on another project, and I went back to where I was staying
that evening — which happened to be Paul
Sperry’s apartment. He said, “Bernard, where have you been all
day? All the phones have been ringing off the hook. You’d
better call home immediately, because people are trying to find you all
over the place.” So that’s when I found out about it. I was
delighted and touched that anything that I would do would gain the
acknowledgement and recognition of my peers and my colleagues in the
profession, and for that I am grateful. But I don’t make anything
in my music for competitions or prizes or anything else. It’s
heartwarming, but next morning the page is still blank and you go back
to work — probably buoyed a little for the
moment. I enjoyed that and I’m not pretending otherwise.
It’s lovely to have these things suddenly, surprisingly placed in one’s
BD: So it’s
really just a great big pat on the back?
BR: It is,
and there’s nothing wrong with that if one has it in perspective.
I’m usually much happier when I see one of my colleagues and friends
get desserts of that kind for what they’ve done. I’m a very
private person, and I don’t like the clamor for interviews — especially
ones for essentially journalistic purposes like headlines
and such. It’s of no concern to me whatsoever. In terms of
work, I was already busy with lots of commissions, and therefore I just
got on. I don’t doubt that because the Pulitzer is touted widely
as some mark of distinction, that other opportunities have accrued to
me because of it, and again I’m grateful. But I would make no
bones about turning down a commission, no matter how lucrative it would
be, if the project didn’t attract my creative imagination. I
wouldn’t touch it with a very long pole. It’s not worth it.
BD: How do
you decide if you will accept or turn down commissions?
knows. One knows instinctively whether that’s what one wants to
do. When one is younger, one is grateful for any bread that drops
in the lap, and I understand why. One of the reasons —
and I say this in all deference to the institutions that
I’ve been lucky enough to serve — is that being
in university sometimes has protected me from that. For example,
as a young man with two children, how could I have maintained my family
in any kind of reasonable living standard, keeping them alive in those
early years when few people besides your friends know you, and nobody
can pay you for your music? At times like that, if you’re
freelancing you have to take every damn thing that comes along.
There’s something about sharpening one’s skills that way, if it’s
necessary. I didn’t feel that for me it was, but being a
university teacher and loving libraries and books and young people, I
was able to say sometimes — not often, but when I needed to — “No, I
can’t. I don’t want to do that. I can’t do that right
now.” I’ve maintained that, and I think in the end it’s stood me
in good stead. Now, as one gets older, the commissions are of a
different nature because now people are saying to you, “Look, we will
buy some of your time to make something.” A good commission says,
“What would you like to do most?” It doesn’t say, “We want this,
this, this, this, and this for so many minutes.” It says, “What
would you like to do? And if we are a vehicle or a medium through
which you can do that, then here, let us buy your time. Take a
year and do this for us.” I now have enough projects for the rest
of my life in my mind and in my notebooks that I want to do.
Hopefully, if I’m fortunate, as commissions come then I can interest
people in those projects. One should never leave out the
possibility that someone would come along with something quite striking
that one hadn’t quite thought of. One will know immediately then
whether it’s something one wants to embark on or not.
BD: So it’s
not something you even have to mull over? It just comes to you
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your works
throughout the years?
They range even wider than the spectrum we spoke about earlier
— the latitude for interpretation — from
strictness and precision to sloppy. [Thinks for a moment]
For the most part I have been very fortunate. In my younger
years, when Pierre Boulez was also in his younger years, he took an
interest in my work. He conducted a lot of my orchestra music and
chamber music of that period, especially when he was at the BBC in
London and I was living in Britain at that time. He commissioned
new works. I’ve worked with a lot of the major orchestras around
the world. I’ve had close friendships with Riccardo Muti in
Philadelphia now and Bruno Maderna that I mentioned earlier, and many
others. I’ve also had the good fortune of working with lots of
very fine soloists and instrumental ensembles, so that for the most
part I’ve always been able to write at the extent and outer edge of my
capacity, knowing that the music was going to be in the hands and
instruments of very fine performers. That’s of first condition
for a new work; then the work has a life of its own. It goes to a
publisher, and they distribute it and so on. One can’t follow
one’s music around all the time just in order to hear it. When
one’s heard it a few times, then you don’t bother with it. It
goes on its own life.
BD: Would you
want to follow it more than you do?
BR: No, except on
special occasions. I’ve heard Le
Tambourin many, many times and I’ve conducted it lots of
times. But immediately when Shulamit Ran told me that Pierre
Boulez was doing it, even if I’d not been giving pre-concert talks for
all of this series, I would have wanted to be here anyway to see him,
be with him, spend time and talk because of what I said about him
earlier — that the consistency of his approach
will be present, and there will be a different understanding of it from
others, and that’s fascinating. But I’ve been very, very
lucky. There are times, of course, when like everyone else I’ve
been very dissatisfied.
BD: Do you
make that dissatisfaction known?
BR: I’m not
slow at letting it be known, no. [Both laugh] We’re the
only guardians of our property, of our work, in that sense. One
tries to do it always in the best climate one can create — of
friendship and exchange — but if someone is
violating, either deliberately or simply unwittingly, what one intends,
then I think one has to speak up and just make it clear that it’s not
about the recordings? They have a little more permanence and
universality. Have you been pleased with those?
BR: Yes, I
have. But if you look through the Schwann Catalog, you’ll see my
name maybe with two lines to it. It’s something I’ve neglected
very badly. There’s no good reason why I have, nor why I should
have. I’ve always been so busy with making music in one form or
another I’ve paid very little attention to recording it. There’s
the CRI, which I did myself. I conducted the pieces on that, and
therefore I have to say at this point that I was fairly satisfied with
what we did.
BD: I hope
you’re still pleased?
BR: Yes, I am
because it was done with the ensemble that I directed for several
years. I formed and directed it, and it was an ensemble that was
formed on the basis of rehearsing regularly and intensively, whether or
not we had concerts. That led us to a level of performance and
understanding and sensitivity to each other, musically, that was a
thrill. It was a joy. So I know that they are a fairly
faithful representation of what my intentions were at that time.
about the one on New World?
very, very good. Riccardo Muti did the two Le Tambourin Suites and Ceremonial 3. By the time we
recorded them, he had done Le
Tambourin seventeen times in one season.
BR: We did it
five times in Philadelphia, and then we did two children’s concerts in
relation to education concerts. Then we took it on tour for eight
concerts around the United States, and then we did it for Radiothon and
something else. So that by the time we got to record it, the
players treated it like repertoire. When they played part of it
last week in Philadelphia, it was like they just put out another piece
from the library and they played it quite well.
BD: I would
think that would be immensely satisfying.
Yes. The third piece on the new CD is conducted by Gerard
Schwarz. Gerard came in at the very last moment to do the Canti Dell’Eclisse because Muti was
sick. Imagine getting the score! It’s over thirty minutes
long and is quite complex with a soloist involved. I got the
message that Riccardo Muti could not come; his doctor had forbidden
him. I think it was on the Wednesday prior to the Tuesday
rehearsal of the next week. The first thing I said when the
office called me was, “Oh, my God!” They said, “Will you do it?”
and I said, “Yes I will, and I can, but that’s my last option.
Try whoever is available, but especially try Gerard Schwarz.”
BD: You would
rather have Schwarz do it rather than wait until Muti could do it a
because the recording had already been waiting for the dates of the
performance of this. I didn’t want to wait any longer for the CD
to come out, nor did the company that wanted to bring it out.
Gerry was satisfied with a week to learn it. In typical fashion
he took on the whole program, and I must say he did a remarkable,
remarkable job. That kind of musicianship is also very, very
special for someone who can do that.
also a recording on Neuma?
chamber work, that’s right, with the Boston Musica Viva. I forgot
about that; it just came out recently. That’s a little work for
flute, harp and string trio, which is nicely done. Now, come to
think of it, there is the Cleveland Chamber Symphony recording which is
out on the Gunther Schuller label, GM. That’s very nicely done,
too. There was also a vocal piece on a special disc that
Universal Edition in Vienna brought out, but for the most part that’s
it. I have to be more attentive to this, though. I’m the
world’s worst promoter and businessman. I’ve been dealing with
that side of my life and I am not very good at it.
BD: One last
question — is composing fun?
question has terminology that is used on so many contexts which are not
related to what I do that I have difficulty answering
immediately. Does it make me happy? In the long run,
yes. This is my life; this is who I am. What I do is not an
occupation; it is who I am; this is me. But there are very sad
times about it that have nothing to do with whether somebody likes or
dislikes what I do, or rejection professionally. That’s not an
issue. But there is always a feeling, even when one is satisfied
with what one’s done, that there is yet more; there is another
way. That’s what gives rise to the next work, because were it not
so, then we would draw the last double bar line and it would be
over. But that is both an anxious feeling and it’s also fun to
know that there is something else.
BD: Thank you
for being a composer. I appreciate your spending the time with
me. This has been a wonderful conversation!
you. I enjoyed it, too.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
-- -- --
© 1993 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on December
3, 1993. Segments were used (with recordings)
on WNIB in 1994 and 1999, and on WNUR in 2003. A copy of the
unedited audio was placed in the Archive
of Contemporary Music at Northwestern
University. This transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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.