Composer Richard Wilson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Richard Wilson was born in
Cleveland on May 15, 1941. He studied piano
with Roslyn Pettibone, Egbert Fischer, and Leonard Shure, and cello
with Robert Ripley and Ernst Silberstein. After beginning composition
studies with Roslyn Pettibone and Howard Whittaker, he went on in 1959
to Harvard, studying with Randall Thompson, G.W. Woodworth, and
principally with Robert
Moevs, and graduating in 1963 magna cum laude.
Awarded the Frank Huntington Beebe Award for study abroad, he continued
studying piano with Friedrich Wührer in Munich, and composition,
with Moevs, in Rome, where he also gave piano recitals. Wilson joined
the faculty of Vassar College in 1966. He was appointed to the Mary
Conover Mellon Professorship of Music there in 1988, and he has served
three times as chairman of the Department of Music.
In the last few years Wilson’s music has begun to make a wider mark,
with the help of commissions from the San Francisco Symphony and other
organizations. His works have been heard not only in such American
musical centers as New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston,
Cleveland, and Los Angeles and at the Aspen Music Festival, but also in
London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Zurich, Milan, Amsterdam, Graz, Leningrad,
Stockholm, Tokyo, Bogota, and a number of Australian cities.
The recipient in 1992 of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he was awarded the
Elise L. Stoeger Prize of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
in 1994, the Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and
Letters in 2004, and has served as composer in residence with the
American Symphony Orchestra since 1992. Recent commissions have
from the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Fromm Foundation, and
-- Names which are links on
this webpaage refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.
When I first contacted Richard Wilson, it turned out that he was going
to visit the Windy City in April of 1991, so we agreed to meet when he
was here. Here is what transpired when we met that evening . . .
Thank you for coming to Chicago.
It’s fun to be here. I haven’t been in
Chicago since I was in college, which I hate to say, we’re talking
almost 30 years ago. I came with the Harvard Glee Club and gave a
BD: Were you
accompanying or singing?
BD: Did that
encourage you to write some
RW: It did at
time, or at least shortly
after that time, yes. I started off with a series of a cappella
been at Vassar for how
BD: Is that
too long to be in one place?
RW: It sounds
it. Everybody thinks so,
but I like it there. That’s the trouble; otherwise, I
would have tried to move. I think of myself as a
“starting off” assistant professor, but everybody else thinks of me as
part of the woodwork — some old duffer who has been there a long
BD: Are you
teaching theory and composition?
RW: I like
the harmony and counterpoint. I teach
some composition. I also teach some music appreciation.
BD: When did
RW: It’s been
coed for some
time. My wife was in the last, as we say, “pure”
class. That was in ’69.
BD: Oh, so
it’s been more than twenty years! [Laughs] I’m just a
RW: I was in
Omaha, and a member of the music faculty who was driving me said, “Is
coed?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Used to be all
wasn’t it?” [Both laugh] I love to tell that to people at
Vassar, just to
let them know they’re not as famous as they think they are.
you’re at one of the
well-known schools, is that a problem to think that everybody knows
what you’re doing
and what’s going on?
RW: I don’t
know whether it’s a problem. We
were living in England for a year, and about halfway through, somebody
said to my wife, “You always say your husband teaches at
Vassar as though you thought we all knew what that was. We’ve
never heard of it.” But I don’t give it much thought one way or
another. We like to point to Meryl Streep or
Mary McCarthy or Elizabeth Bishop; it has graduated some very
BD: You teach
and you compose. How do you
divide your time between those two very taxing activities?
RW: You get
in the habit of organizing it and
trying to partition it. Luckily I live very close to the place
where I teach, so I can get back and forth quickly and can
really sequester myself. I can dedicate certain days of the week
to composition. You obviously can’t slight either
one of them because you want to do a good job of the teaching, so it
goes in waves. Sometimes you’re more involved with composition
and less involved with teaching, such as now that I’m on sabbatical
this year. But you have the summers and you have the vacations.
BD: Do you
get enough time to compose?
RW: I’d like
more ideas! The time is fine; I
can’t complain. I get enough time, given the imagination — the
that I seem to have. What I’d like is more of the latter.
Then I’d need more time.
BD: Do you
find yourself really sitting there with a
blank page, or a partially composed page?
does; they just don’t admit it.
Everybody just sits there and stares at these pages, and then you
finally start drawing in empty bar lines just to give yourself the
feeling that you’re making progress. It’s a
slow thing, especially — for me at least — at the beginning of a
piece. It gets a lot faster when you’re heading toward the end,
but just starting off — say when you’re starting a symphony — it’s
daunting to think of filling thirty or forty minutes.
you’ve got the blank page in front of you, do you know
about how long it will take to perform?
RW: It’s hard
to answer it in a general
way. The more you’ve done it, the more sense you have
of what you’re up against, or where your initial ideas are going to
lead, so you can get a sense of the proportions of things.
BD: If your
assignment is to write a thirty
minute symphony, is it going to come out about a half-hour?
RW: Of course
you can control that.
That’s a whole subject in itself, as to whether you’re really held to
that. If your ideas led you to a forty-five minute piece
and they said thirty, are they really going to cut it off at the end of
thirty minutes? That depends on the circumstance.
BD: Would it
be better for you to finish this
up as a forty-five minute piece and then write a different thirty
minute piece for the commission?
RW: You never
know; it really
depends. Sometimes the ideas are compelling and
require a certain kind of realization. If that takes
forty-five minutes instead of thirty, you’ve got to do what it
requires. They can decide and they can delete part of it.
Nicholas Maw has this huge piece that the BBC commissioned. It’s
two hours, the longest single-movement orchestral piece, and when
they first did it, they did leave out part of it. Everybody
complained that that was a crazy thing to do, so then they
did the whole thing. There are lots of stories about that.
BD: I take it
you have a little more liberal view,
that they could maybe leave out a little bit and you wouldn’t scream
RW: Oh, I
would scream and holler, but I’m saying
that you have to face this on a piece-by-piece case. I’ve never
had a piece played that was cut, but I remember having a
conversation... This is sound like name-dropping, but I once was
with Copland when he had just been to Philadelphia. They had done
one of his popular pieces — I think it was Billy the Kid — and
at the last minute, the conductor — who I won’t name, but it might be
obvious — muttered something about, “I hope you don’t mind the
cuts.” Copland went there, and they proceeded to leave
out, almost arbitrarily, a few measures here and a few measures there,
in a piece that was very well known. He was quite
amazed! He wasn’t angry about it. I know he wasn’t the sort
of person who would throw a fit, but he couldn’t understand why a great
orchestra, which could obviously play the piece and had no time
limitations, should chop and cut. I’ve never had
that. I’m not played that much,
perhaps, but I’ve never had to face the question of leaving out
you’re in the midst of
composing and you’ve got the ideas flowing, are you
always in control of that pencil, or are there times when you
feel that the pencil is guiding your hand across the page?
RW: I don’t
know how to answer that. One would like to say that one is always
in control. I’ve never
felt in competition with the pencil; I don’t think that
it is ever in control, but there are periods in the
process where you really don’t know what you’re doing. You’re
working with bits of material and
trying to let them lead you in certain ways, but you don’t know how it
is going to fit together. So in that sense, you’re not in
control at that moment. You have to go through periods where
you’re uncertain as to the outcome. This is my line on
this; of course, other people might feel differently, and
everybody always quotes the Mozart statement about how in a flash he
understands, perceives, hears, or whatever, the entire piece from
beginning to end. I know what he meant by that, and I
don’t think it necessarily contradicts what I’m describing, which is
this intermediate period of searching and shaping and extending, then
in some cases trimming and rearranging and deciding that certain
bits don’t belong in the piece that you’re writing at all, but they
belong in some other piece. It’s very important to get them out
of there, because they’re going to
impede the logic and the flow of the work at hand. So in that
you’re in control. You’ve done this before, you know
what it feels like, you realize what you’ve got to do at that
moment. You’re sure which direction you’re going
in, but you’re not sure how it’s going to fit. You have to
leave it open for a certain kind of improvisation — much
different from the jazz
improvisation. This is a particular compositorial improvisation,
where you think A is leading to B, but why don’t we try A after B, and
put C in there, and D might fit here, but why don’t we try it over
there... this kind of thing.
BD: When you’re
juggling all of these ideas and you have it all down, how do you know
right and when it’s finished?
that isn’t so much of a
problem. This comes back to how the more
advanced stages of it are, in a way, easier. The much, much
harder part is where you’re struggling with the initial fragment.
Once you’ve got it three-quarters or four-fifths or six-sevenths of the
way finished, you can tell how it’s going. You can tell when it’s
finished; at least I don’t find that to be a period of
distress. Obviously there are cases where, once it’s
finished and performed, you listen to it and you might change
something. That seems quite a reasonable thing to do, and many
great composers did it. But in deciding when it’s
finished there are some specific problems. You are deciding when
particular texture is complete. For instance, do you need to add
quiet cymbal in the background, or is there already too much going on
at that particular passage? That’s tough.
BD: Or the
doublings in the woodwinds and strings?
the thinning out, adding
just a little more body, plugging up a dead spot, something like
that. Those are tough decisions, but deciding when the whole
piece is finished, I find, is one of the more pleasurable and not
BD: Do you
ever go back and radically revise
your scores, or is it just touching up after the first rehearsal?
RW: I have to
fight a certain hysteria that
sets in about the end of the first rehearsal, where there is a desire
to either delete the entire piece or make some very radical
change. Then my wife and friends all have to say, “Well, no,
just wait till the second rehearsal. Let’s give it a little more
time.” Once we’ve gone through the performance, I
haven’t made what I think you’re meaning in the way of radical
changes. I have fixed bits here and there — tried
eliminate an awkwardness, or if I have misjudged an
orchestrational detail. Something you thought was going to sound
wonderful just doesn’t get off the stage; it’s too subtle or too
gauche; those things.
BD: Will you
musicians work with the piece and get into it before making
suggestions, or are you there with suggestions right away?
no. The advantage of a
little bit of experience there is good, especially if you’re lucky
have wonderful players. You can trust them to
discover things and find ways of solving problems on their own.
So the less you interfere, probably, the better.
BD: Do they
ever discover things you didn’t know you
had put there?
sure. There are sometimes
relationships that you
didn’t realize. They get an angle on something that you just
didn’t notice, but is there. How it got there, you
don’t know, or maybe you did notice and intended it, and then you
forget all about it. That happens to me,
because unlike some composers
who, to my amazement, remember their own music in the most specific
detail, I don’t do that. I’m often surprised by things. I
pieces, I forget details, mainly because for me at
least, when you go on to the next piece, you wipe the slate
clean. Maybe this is because it’s a small slate, so you haven’t
got any extra space there, but it’s also, to try to make the new piece
BD: Are you
wiping the slate clean, or are you going
onto a new slate?
RW: I think
you’re only given one slate, so you have
to wipe it clean, or else the traces of these other pieces are
going to be there, and you’re going to run the risk of writing the same
piece more than once. So you clean that slate off, and at
least in my case, then you can’t remember what you wrote in the
previous piece. By the time that piece has worked its way up to a
you’re involved with some other piece. You’re no longer involved
in it. It’s not that you don’t care, but you’ve moved
on to something else, so you come at this earlier piece with a certain
detachment. I’m often surprised by it.
you come upon a piece that was ten or
even twenty years old. Are you pleased with what’s there, or do
you think, “How did I ever write that?”
RW: I almost
hesitate to say this, but I’m
pleased by what I hear. I recently had a CD come out
that was sort of retrospective, and I have not been horrified by pieces
that I wrote twenty years ago. Now there may be pieces that I
wrote twenty years ago that I would be horrified by, but the ones that
are available on CD seem to hold up okay.
BD: You write
in a much more accessible style
than a lot of the other composters today. Is this the way
you want to write, or is it because you want to make it more accessible?
RW: I don’t
think it’s true! I think that I’m
less accessible than many composers writing today.
RW: For one
thing, there’s very little trace of
minimalism in my music, and secondly, my music is highly chromatic and
rhythmically fairly complex. These are not the ingredients for
accessibility on the whole. What I think is accessible,
perhaps, is that I do tend to have some kind of recurring material —
in an ostinato or steady recurrence, but there is some kind of a
formal design that can be understood without reference to the score
itself. In that sense it’s accessible. I don’t
necessarily want to get into listing names, but I could list
quite a few composers who are more accessible than I am.
just the minimalists? [Vis-à-vis
the LP shown at left, see my Interviews with Harvey Sollberger,
Ursula Oppens, and
composers; composers who are, in a way, looking back to the period of
the ’40s and the big orchestral pieces of that period, being
influenced by the big “orchestral statement”
BD: And yet,
I would assume that you could also name,
perhaps, even a greater number who are less accessible to the typical
RW: I suppose.
BD: So then
you’re right in the middle.
BD: I’m not
trying to pigeonhole you, but do
you feel that you’re part of a lineage of composers?
RW: Oh I hope
so, yes. I don’t know.
That seems to me to be a very fundamental motivation, to attempt to
be in some kind of lineage. You want to be working with the same
materials that other composers you admire did work with. I
definitely do feel that.
BD: And yet
to bring something new to it?
RW: Yes, and
to bring something personal and individual
to it. I didn’t get involved with composition on any serious
basis until the end of my college years. I had
done it when I was a child, actually; I wrote piano pieces and
sent them off to publishers, but thank goodness they were never
accepted. I was going regularly to the
Cleveland Orchestra concerts, and when I finally heard what
sounded like, I was horrified. I hated what I heard when I was
eleven or twelve. I
started going every week when I was rather young, which is a lucky
thing because of that great Szell period in the ’50s and into the ’60s,
Cleveland Orchestra. I learned a lot of repertoire and
certainly learned what a great orchestra sounded like, but I can’t say
that I developed an interest in contemporary music
until I was a bit older. I loved the Stravinsky concerts that
took place in Cleveland. He came a couple times and conducted his
own music. I remember Markevitch coming and doing The Rite of
Spring, and I remember a piece by a composer named Robert Moevs,
had a premiere in Cleveland. I was very impressed with
I later went off to college and found that I was studying harmony with
Robert Moevs. Just by the purest coincidence, I was in his class.
BD: I did an
interview with him, and recently a 70th birthday program for him
RW: Yes, you
did, indeed. He told me that you
did. But all that youthful experience I had still didn’t do
it. I was
studying harmony, and a couple years later Boulez
came to Harvard. I heard more of Moevs’s music and I started
a seminar with Moevs, and Boulez was there. Some of his
music was being played, and I was thrilled by that. I went from
being rather turned off by, let’s say, middle of the
road contemporary music to being very much excited by what was at the
time the most progressive contemporary music, such as Boulez.
This was in ’62 or ’63, so I have since moved gradually away
from the edge, so to speak. The music that I first wrote
was probably more Boulezian than anything I’ve written since. I
know that’s a little odd...
BD: No one
would mistake your music now for
RW: No, no,
but it was the contact with Moevs
and Boulez that animated me. I had been a pianist who was
a pre-medical student. In fact, I got as far being accepted to
school! Then I decided I really didn’t think that I’d be a very
RW: I had a
certain tendency toward absent-mindedness and
improvisation, as I was speaking of before, so it probably wouldn’t
any service to humanity. There are probably
people alive today who would be dead if I had gone in that
direction! At least my music hasn’t killed anybody. I
backed off of
that, and the addition of composition to activities as a pianist seemed
to do it for me. That felt like the kind of life I might
wanted to have — plus teaching, which I knew I would be doing. So
went in that direction and I continue to play, so it
makes a package — the teaching, the playing, and
BD: Do you
also conduct your works?
RW: I have,
yes, on occasion. It’s not an
ambition of mine to be a conductor, but I’ve done it over the years, on
and off as necessary, with some pleasure and apparent
BD: Are you
the ideal conductor of your works?
RW: No, I
wouldn’t say that at all. I don’t
think that anybody who just conducts once every two or three years
would be an ideal conductor of anything. I do it when there’s
nobody better available.
BD: When you
leave the music to other people,
how much leeway do you put in the
composition and expect them to interject their own ideas into your work?
RW: There I
would say I’m quite a
traditionalist. That interpretive element which is supplied by
the performer is absolutely essential.
You only have to go regularly to student recitals and hear people
playing Beethoven sonatas who aren’t ready yet to be playing Beethoven
sonatas to know how terrible a great piece can sound if it is not
played well. So you understand the necessary role of
the interpreter and the performer. You don’t have to
go so far as was the case being experimented with in the
’60s of allowing the performer notational choices or
things like that. The performer
has their role to play right from the start, and it is very important;
I rather count on it. I know that a great composer like
Stravinsky, having been burned enough times, felt that it
should be minimized. “Just play it the way I wrote it,” he might
say, but the
truth of it is you have to trust your performers. Even in
Stravinsky, you can hear a
great difference in performances of The
Symphony in Three
Movements. It can sound like a magnificent piece, or it
like a dull piece, given the performance.
BD: But given
performances on a certain level where
it won’t sound bad, can it sound good but differently?
sure. I’m all for the art of the
performance. That’s a type or recordings I tend to collect
— Szigeti or
Schnabel, the great interpreters, or at least what I think are the
landmarks of the previous generation,
RW: I love
comparing one to people
who are playing today, and comparing them, not always unfavorably, to
these great figures who are in the past.
BD: Are there
recordings of the current generation? You don’t have to be
specific about names...
RW: Oh, I do
think there are. Yes, I do. Yo-Yo Ma’s solo Bach recordings
are marvelous, just to pick one. Also András Schiff has
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
RW: No, in sense
one thing that concerns me so much is that I don’t really think that
colleges and universities are doing what they should toward
building a listening audience for classical music. For about
twenty-five or thirty years, the emphasis has been off of
what used to be called “music appreciation.” The emphasis
has gone in a variety of directions, some of which are quite
understandable, but the effect of that has been that we
haven’t done our job. I don’t think the young are as
involved with this music as they should be. The thing that
makes me worry is whether, in a certain period of time, it will all be
gone. It’s their
parents who also didn’t grow up on classical music, so I’m afraid it’s
a kind of music that the current young associate with
their grandparents, if at all.
BD: If the
parents did have it and the kids rejected it,
perhaps eventually they’d come back to it; but if the parents didn’t
have it, then their kids will never have anything to come back to?
RW: I think
that might be the case. After all, Vassar is a rather, shall we
elite institution, and yet you get the great majority of students go
through without ever taking a course in music appreciation.
should the colleges be doing?
should be doing a
better job of those courses, and in some cases trying to build them
into a basic core curriculum, which they’re not doing. It’s
nothing against the field of Black Music, but that
field is flourishing. You can get 100 people for a course in
Black Music, and twenty for a course in Haydn, Mozart and
Beethoven. It’s more fashionable to be involved with black
BD: So maybe
twenty years from now, when Black Music
is completely understood, we’ll have to have a special course in White
RW: I don’t
know. That brings up the
whole question of rock, and so on. I don’t have any large
philosophical position on this; I just am concerned about the kind of
music that matters most to me, and whether it be supported. After
all, most orchestras are in some measure of difficulty in fundraising
in the moment, but what is it going to be like in thirty years when
the current audience is all dead?
rock be considered music?
certainly a sociological phenomenon
that is in some way related to music, and it’s important. I’m
sure it’s sociologically important. I have to say that it doesn’t
mean very much to me as music, but it does to some people who are
involved with classical music, and it does impinge on the music that
they write — not, in my opinion, to advantage, but that’s just my
opinion. It goes in one ear and out the other, as
far as I’m concerned. Most of the time I’m not even aware.
I just don’t even notice it.
then, rock doesn’t touch
you. Should the music that touches you touch everyone?
RW: If they
were to get
involved with it, they would be touched by it. I’m not going to
say that it should happen, but if they’re exposed to it under
favorable circumstances, the music will take care of itself. It
is so powerful and in my opinion so important, it will touch
them, and once they’re touched, then we’ve got them. I’ve
seen that happen; I’ve seen students come in, and the last thing
in the world they want to do is get involved with an opera. Then
you present them with Carmen
and they’re knocked out by it.
BD: So then
you essentially believe in the power of
the music itself?
do. Yes, I certainly do.
BD: Where is
music going these days — or
is it too multifaceted to pin down?
RW: I’m not
the right person to ask; you need some historian of music who
specializes in it. All
periods in the past were confusing, so you had cross-currents
and fashions and fads and so on; so it’s probably not that much
different at the moment. But one is tempted, a little bit, to say
that we’re in a slightly dull period only because it’s a reaction
against the period of great experimentation of the late ’50s and
’60s. In some peoples’ minds, that drove away an audience from
contemporary music, although I’m arguing that the whole audience for
classical music is reduced — not specifically
music. But in any case, “accessibility,” the word that you used a
few minutes ago, has become the watchword for many composers.
They want their music to speak on the first hearing, and that is, in my
opinion, risky because the very point of classical
music is that the more times you hear it, the more involved you get
with it. Very often, even the greatest pieces don’t capture
you on the very first hearing, unless somebody is carefully
presenting it so that you’re listening for the right things, or at
least have some landmarks. It takes work or exposure to get
involved with classical music. So
if your objective, as a composer, is to get it all the first time,
I’m not sure about it.
BD: Is this
what differentiates the levels of
music, as far as being great or less great — how much depth they have
to plumb? [Vis-à-vis the
CD shown at left, see my Interviews with Robert Starer, Janos Starker, and Richard Wernick.]
RW: It might
be; I don’t know. I don’t like to get involved with what’s
greater. Is Tchaikovsky less great than Josquin?
I don’t know. You can’t really compare things like that.
Some great composers, such as Tchaikowsky, do make an immediate
impact on people; there’s no doubt about that. Elliott
Carter’s music does not make the same kind of impact as a
Fourth Symphony. What
I’m saying is that the more you listen to
Elliott Carter’s music, the more you get out of it.
BD: Is this
we’re brought up on it? It seems like all of the music that
our society — the TV jingles, so-called easy
listening, everything, even the rock music — is somewhat based on
Tchaikovskian tonality and rhythms and structures?
wouldn’t blame him for any of that. It’s more of an offshoot of
simplest kind of pop music — the basic three chords that go in the same
order all the time. Tchaikovsky had far more than three
[Both laugh] The great thing about less accessible
music is that it’s an escape from the trivial music that is
everywhere — in elevators and supermarkets and
all over the
radio as well as in advertising and everything. One seeks an
entirely different kind of music from that. It’s fine
that the strongest argument for so-called “atonal” music is precisely
that kind of music is not used in elevators and supermarkets.
It’s not therapy; it’s not mood music; it’s not Muzak. It doesn’t
pretend to be; it’s not. It’s a completely
different world from that.
kind of been dancing around it, and
you even touched on a moment ago, so let me ask straight
out... What is the purpose of music?
RW: I think
it’s to elevate
the spirit, but that seems a bit trivial. It’s what comes to
mind, but whatever the purpose of it, it’s intrinsic to humanity.
It’s so amazing to me that you can go back century after century and
find people doing it, and on such a very, very high level. In the
Century or the 14th Century or the 10th, whatever
it is, it’s been taken very seriously for a long time, and is
associated with the very highest sort of spiritual values, as well as
entertainment and play and dance, and so on. So it’s very
far-ranging from sacred to profane, but it’s very much a part of our
world. It was probably more of a part of a less-noisy world,
maybe, because I’m afraid I would categorize Muzak as part of the noisy
aspect of modern life.
some sounds to mask other sounds,
which, of course, adds more sound to the existing sound.
Yes. When you say, “What is the purpose
of music,” it’s very hard to answer that, because I’m an individual,
and obviously this is something that transcends individuals because
it’s gone on for such a long time. “What is the purpose
of an individual to write music?” would be different from “what is the
purpose of music?”
BD: Why do
you write music, then?
nothing better to do. [Both laugh] That is to say, it is
something that you feel,
that if you can do it well and leave a little bit of a record, you
passed through this life and this is what you left
behind. The tantalizing thing is that it could survive
you, not in some tremendous way, but just a little
bit. If you wrote one piece that contributed in some significant
way to the repertoire for some instrument so that the players of that
instrument would go on playing your piece after you’re dead, there’s
something fascinating about that. It may be some ego
thing, but I don’t know. It’s just a sort of a nice idea that it
would go on, and that you would make your little contribution to that
long tradition that has included some extraordinary figures.
You’re not saying you’re on the level of those figures, but that you
should have any relationship to those figures is a remarkable thing, if
BD: Are you
in competition with the remarkable
figures, either of previous generations or this generation?
one of the crazy things — you
are! You don’t want to be, necessarily, but I remember when one
of my quartets was being played in New York
with a Mozart quartet starting the program and my favorite Brahms
quartet ending it. There I was in the middle. This is not
I had in mind! It’s like you were invited to play
tennis, and it turns out that you look across the court and it’s Jimmy
Connors. There are
television cameras, and suddenly you’re playing with some
world champion. That isn’t what I had in mind, and I certainly
of myself as going on there with Mozart. Other arts aren’t quite
like that. If you write a novel, you aren’t programmed next to
Henry James or Proust; it isn’t, somehow, that you’re in
a direct relationship to them. Of course, if you survive this,
it’s kind of fun, also. Maybe some lunatic comes up and says they
piece better than Mozart and Brahms!
BD: I assume
that you would like people to say that your piece fit in very well
between the Mozart and Brahms.
RW: That it
did not cause a horrendous embarrassment,
somehow, would be nice.
BD: I assume
it did stand that test on this
RW: I can no
longer remember the answer to that, but
I’m still alive, so...
BD: You must
have a printed review someplace!
somewhere buried in my studio.
[Laughs] What do you expect of the audience
that hears your music, either on a concert of all new music, or one
that features you and Mozart and Brahms?
said this all better than anybody
could. He said that you ask the audience to lend a willing and
curious ear. You’re not presenting yourself in
the way of replacing beloved pieces of repertoire that people have
grown to love; you’re just wanting your little place to be heard, and
that your piece reflects the time in which we live. That is
something you can’t ask from Mozart or Beethoven.
Great as they are, they didn’t live in the end of the 20th
Century. Your music does convey something about our own
time. It’s well known that people who are curious about the
visual arts of
our time are sometimes strangely resistant to the music of our
time. They may collect modern painting, but they won’t
go to a contemporary concert. It’s an odd thing.
BD: Is there
a correlation between the visual and the
often is with
composers. I’m very often inspired by visual images, and I
certainly know painters who listen to contemporary music while they’re
painting. But it’s the question of education. People are
more apt to have been introduced to painting or to the
contemporary arts in college than they are to music. At least in
the milieu in which I exist, there are many more people
taking art courses than music appreciation.
BD: Just on a
superficial level, it would seem that you go into a hotel room and
there may be a
couple of paintings, perhaps even an abstract. Whereas you go
into a hotel room and you’re not going to get a piece of new music.
Right. There’s a whole other side, of
course, and that is that contemporary artworks are commercial
properties that can be sold at a profit. You can invest in modern
art; you can’t, in the same way,
invest in contemporary music. A CD of my music will not skyrocket
BD: Might not
the manuscript of the music on that CD?
RW: I can
hope that would happen, but I
don’t think that I’m going to count on it. There are some
complicated tax considerations
involved with that anyway, but you understand what I mean. It’s
not an investment element, so it doesn’t
have that particular attraction.
BD: We should
get composer cards like they have
baseball cards, and start trading them.
could be a nice idea.
BD: Let me
ask about your recordings. You’ve had quite a number of your
pieces put on disc. Are you pleased with the sound that comes
off the plastic?
of the recordings of
my music are ones where I’ve been involved in some manner.
Usually I’ve been at the session, and I’ve been involved with the
editing. It’s one of the surprises with a piece. We were
talking about when the piece is finished, but it’s never quite finished
until it’s been performed, and then it’s been recorded and it’s been
published. What I mean by “not finished” is that the composer
is faced with all kinds of stages of horrendous decision-making.
You have a recording session and they do five or six versions of each
passage. Then, because they think that
since you’re the composer you know more about this than anybody
else, you are sent these tapes, and you have to listen to
each fragment phrase by phrase, five different times, and
say which one you think is best. The sheer bookkeeping to keep
what you’re doing is quite awful. So with each piece you acquire
a great backlog of material — all of the editing
the recording. Then when it gets published, you have
proofs — several, sometimes three or four sets of proofs loaded with
errors — and you have to try to find
those. Then if there
are errors in the recording session, you have to find those. If
you write many pieces, each piece, potentially, has
this great kind of burden attached to it. I’m not complaining,
because it means if you’re getting recorded and published, that
somebody’s interested in that piece, which is to the good. But
there’s a lot of potential to tear your hair out with this kind of work.
BD: I would
think it would be better for the
performers or the producer to assemble what they think is the
best performance, and then let you decide if there’s something you want
the way that it’s done in standard
repertoire where you’re more apt to have a very experienced
producer. But the kinds of recording companies that specialize in
contemporary music can’t afford the most experienced producers, and
with good reason. After all, the composer does know the
piece better than the other people. But the composer may not be
as adept, or as adroit at this kind of thing. It takes something
to keep track of different versions and so on. But I’ve been
lucky. I think that the recordings of my music are really quite
I’ve been pleased with them. I’ve been very lucky over my career
to have wonderful performers right from the outset.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the live
performances you’ve heard of your music?
no. I remember one time a
choral work was under-rehearsed. It was chorus and two
percussionists — one on either side. They got mixed up as to
the conductor was conducting in two or four, so one percussionist
played the whole piece twice as fast as the other one.
BD: So when
he got to the end, he went back to the
RW: He got to
the end ahead of everybody, but meanwhile, in quiet, expressive
passages, there would
be a tremendous cymbal crash that made no sense at all. That was
a horrible! I’ve had that kind of thing. Every composer can
tell stories of just the lamentable, under-prepared, well-meaning, of
course, but just not well-rehearsed.
happens when you get the review that
says, “Such a brilliant stroke, in the middle of that quiet passage, to
put the cymbal crash.”
never had that. I’ve never had a
review that praised something that shouldn’t have happened in the
piece. I know composers who have, but luckily, so far I haven’t
BD: If that
happened, would you leave it — redo the piece so
that you put the
cymbal crash in?
not. You don’t mean to think that
a critic would make a suggestion in a printed review that I would
take??? I would never do that!
BD: Do you
read the reviews at all?
Sure. I not only read them, but once I had a quartet played in
London, and I was
so nervous about the reviews because several critics came, that I had
to take a tour of the printing plant of the Sunday Times.
I had been advised that the paper came out on Saturday evening at a
certain hour, and when I arrived it hadn’t come out yet. They
wondered what I was doing there, so I signed up for a tour of the
facilities. Some very nice man led me through all the stages, and
then I saw the very first print of the paper coming,
way in the distance, as it threaded its way through all the mechanism,
and finally down a chute and into my hand. He
said, “Would you like to keep that?” and I said, “Yes, thank you
very much.” I left and tore it open looking for the
review, and the critic who had come was bumped that week. It
didn’t appear; it never did appear to this day.
BD: It was
cut for space?
Right. I think he’s dead now, so I’ll never
know what he thought of that quartet. There were other reviews,
but that’s the kind of anxiety, at least at that point, that I had over
it. Not that you can really trust them... I’ve had people
say — and I think they may be right — that it’s even worse when you get
good review. That is, if you start to believe them. It’s
hard to say whether it’s worse to get a bad or good one, and it would
wonderful to be able to ignore that entirely. But frankly, you
can’t do that because in your effort to interest people, which you
have to engage in — you have to do a certain amount of sending tapes or
scores around — it’s handy to have something to include with it, if it
happens to be a good review. The recipient probably doesn’t trust
the reviewer any more than you do, but still it’s something to read
about. It’s the idea of the disinterested
party, however competent or incompetent they may be. At least
they’re not a member of your family and they’re not in the inner
circle of the concert-givers. They have some detachment, and
you’re getting a report of how the thing impressed them.
theoretically, should be how it could
impress the average concertgoer?
Right. Whether they’re a brilliant critic
or not, they usually have some experience, so there’s some context, and
it’s not uninteresting to see what they pick out. Over a period
of time, you can actually learn something.
Is it better to get a review by Andrew
Porter [famed British critic and
translator, then writing for the New Yorker magazine] or Donal Henahan [then senior music critic of The
New York Times] , rather than just someone in some paper, or
even a stringer in a big paper?
RW: I don’t
know if I want to discuss
individual critics, but the two that you name are very, very, very
different. Andrew Porter is an extraordinarily
intelligent and learned critic, who has set an altogether
higher standard in New York than anything I ever heard of before
that. Of course he has
his biases and he has his particular interests, but he’s a
most impressive critic. The thing about
impressive is that he seems to know everything anybody could
conceivably know about opera, and then you discover that one of
his great interests is organ recitals. He knows everything about
organ recitals. Then it turns out that percussion ensembles
have long been one of his favorite things, and he knows everything
that. Then it turns out he’s really an expert on
ballet. And of course he’s heard every premiere — all over
the world — of Henze
or Carter, or whoever. He’s just
BD: When you
get a commission for work, how do you decide if
you’re going to accept it or perhaps postpone it, or even
turn it down?
RW: I suppose
there are certain instruments
that I would turn down. I’m not fond of the bagpipes. I’m
not fond, really, of the organ, so I would have trouble
with that. But I recently did a commission that involved the
harpsichord, which I was worried about because I didn’t think that I
could make friends with the harpsichord. I had written for it in
the past, but this was to be a piece that featured it, and I was a
little concerned about that — though the commission itself was
prestigious enough that I didn’t feel I wanted to turn it down. I
didn’t consider turning it down; there was no question of that, but I
was worried. Eventually I converted. In the
course of writing it, I got over my worries about the
harpsichord, so it was a very good thing to have done. In the
end I would have been wrong if I had allowed my concerns to stand
in the way of that. For most people, whether you take a
commission or not really
has to do with the time frame. Whatever you’re being asked to do,
can you do it in the time that you have to do it, to the level that you
want to do it? If somebody asks you to write an opera
and the performance is a year from the day that you’re having this
phone call, that really is, for most people, out of the question.
BD: [With a
sly nudge] You couldn’t just grind it out in three weeks?
RW: Well, you
wouldn’t want to. At least, I
wouldn’t want to. It depends on the style. If you
write a kind of music where it’s dependent on the ostinato
and you can generate large quantities of music fairly readily, then
it’s not such a problem.
BD: Have you
done an opera?
BD: Are you
going to? [Note: This interview
was held in 1991. Wilson subsequently did write an opera.
Photo from the recording is shown above at right.]
RW: I think
about it a lot, and some friends have
been urging one or another subject on me. You have
to find your own subject, and I don’t seem to respond to these
suggestions from other people. But I’ve been looking into
it. More or less I just trying to keep myself looking by
in New York. I keep reading and looking for things, but what
it amounts to is such an enormous time commitment, and also the fierce
expense of production. It’s not the sort of thing you start
off on without any hope of a performance. You really
have to have some inkling that there would be interest somewhere.
It’s a trap many composers have fallen into.
you’ve written other things for voice?
Yes. Not a great deal. I started off,
as I said when we were talking before, as a choral composer. Then
I went into chamber music and piano music, and only fairly recently
have I done songs. I did my first three songs in ’84, and then a
couple years ago I did a set of five more songs. I had a tenor
and harp piece, actually, in the ’70s, which
I suppose that was my first solo voice piece. That’s a fairly
extended piece, actually.
BD: Being a
pianist, do you write better or more
convincingly for piano?
RW: For a
long time I stayed away from the
piano, thinking that you would fall into the sort of clichés
and so on. But then when I did, I do think it helps to be a
pianist and certainly to know the repertoire to try things.
I do a lot of work at the piano, whether the music is for piano or
not. I fall into that category of a composer who uses the
piano, knowing what its limitations are and what is
possible, and the kinds of adjustments that you need to make.
just using it as a tool?
RW: Yes, but
it’s a very helpful tool.
composition, where is the balance between the
inspiration and the technique?
RW: I never
used to understand what was meant by the technique. You’re
not talking about a specific technique — let’s say the twelve-tone
technique, which is really very specialized and I don’t do
that, anyway. Very few people at the moment do write
strictly serial music, but I’ve never been involved with that.
So what is meant by technique?
BD: The craft
which is involved.
Mm-hm. It’s really hard for me to
tell what the difference is. I’m sure that there is some meaning
to this, but I’m a little bit puzzled as to what it is. It all
pretty much fuses together.
BD: The music
comes to you as a piece, rather than having to work it out?
inspiration. You may have bits of material that you have
thought of and written down, and you can’t figure out what to do with
them. Then you get an inspiration and you see how they might fit
relate. It comes to you what would be the key thing that you
haven’t written that,
if you were to write it, would all make it all fit together. Now
is that technique or inspiration? I don’t know.
Right up to the last moment is the potential for inspiration. I’m
sure it’s true with great composers. I’m sure Beethoven may have
added a grace note to the theme of the last movement of the Second
Piano Concerto and that made the whole thing wonderful — which,
take it out, it’s a little dull. You have to
be open to the last minute things. Obviously there are
you write for instruments in a way that the instrument can’t play what
you’ve written, or it’s out of the register, or it’s so awkward that
they can’t finger it, that would seem to be a lapse in technique of a
certain sort. But once you start talking about the music itself,
I suppose technique might be defined as your ability to
make the music really actually sound the way you want it to sound, so
that what comes off the stage is exactly what you intended.
That’s the ideal, after all, which doesn’t always happen. Certain
distinguished composers had to do some adjusting. People forget
that Mahler insisted on trying out
his orchestral pieces with his own orchestra, and then making lots and
lots of changes. Ravel would hire an orchestra and try
out, in private, his orchestrations to see what they sounded
BD: Are you,
then, the beneficiary of all of their
course. You study their scores and
see what it is that they arrived at and how it sounded. They did
advance the art of orchestration by doing
that, but it’s no flaw, really, in their technique that they
needed to try out things. That’s only reasonable.
BD: Has the
proliferation of recordings changed this
kind of balance for the composer at all?
proliferation of recordings
has both a positive and negative effect. The positive
thing is that you can listen to so many different kinds
of things. Any kind of thing you might want you can immediately
hear, whereas in the end of the 19th Century, you might have to wait
and months to hear one performance of a given Beethoven symphony.
However, that one performance was indelibly registered on your memory
because you had to wait for two or three months for it. The
concentration of listening, when it was the only time you could
hear it, produced a human effect that is so
intense. It’s not that way now. We can put on a CD and
stop in the middle, go make a phone call and come back. It’s just
not the same kind of thing because it’s so accessible.
BD: Is this
diminishing its importance to us?
RW: I would
just say it has both a positive and a
negative side. You can’t really return to the past, but there was
some positive musical side effect to having to
learn a Beethoven symphony in the four-hand piano arrangement, in
preparation for the only opportunity you might have in a given year
— or two or
three or four — to hear a live orchestral
performance, which might not
even be that well done. But you prepared yourself for it, and all
was very good for people’s education.
RW: If you
asked my wife, she would report that
it is not fun; that it is agonizing and terrifying and so on because I
make these constant complaints about it. But if I found
it as awful as I say I find it, then I don’t think I’d continue to do
it. It’s frustrating, but it’s exhilarating at the
same time. The great thing that you are waiting for is that
unexpected connection, the unforeseen relationship that you can then
project in your music, and make it come out in a way that is better
than you thought you were going to be able to do when you got into the
project in the first place. That is the nice thing, when it
happens — which doesn’t always, but you hope for it. Let’s even
say you sketched the piece out and you thought, “This is really
what I meant to do.” All of a sudden you think, “What
if I did this in addition to that?” Or, “What if we combined this
and that?” Or maybe it could be just something that elevates it
above what you
aimed for. If you can bring that off, then that’s very
satisfying. Fun? I don’t know, but it’s very satisfying.
BD: I’m glad
you’ve continued to do this throughout
thank you. I am, too. There’s never really been a moment
where I thought I was
going to give it up, strange to say. It has an intoxicating
effect, like driving a superhighway.
You get into it and it’s hard to stop doing it.
BD: You’re at
your 50th birthday. Are you
where you expected to be when you got to be fifty?
alive; I’m not sure I expected that. I
don’t think long into the future.
I’ve written more pieces than I am years old; that I consider some kind
of crazy accomplishment. I’ve written sixty pieces, but
I’m only fifty years old, so that perhaps is more than I expected.
BD: Thank you
for coming to Chicago and
sharing some of your ideas with me.
RW: It’s a
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© 1991 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago
on April 22, 1991. Sections were used (along with
recordings) on WNIB the following month, and again in 1996, and on WNUR
in 2007. It was transcribed and posted on this
website in 2012. Subsequently, more links and photos were added.
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.