Composer / Professor  Robert  Stern

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie




robert stern



Obituary: Robert Stern, Composer, Professor Emeritus of Music Theory and Composition

From UMassAmherst, August 31, 2018


Robert Stern, 84, of Amherst, composer and professor emeritus of music theory and composition, died Aug. 29.

Born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1934, he developed an early love of music when his mother brought him to classical music concerts, and his musical talent was recognized during his elementary school years.

He received bachelor degrees from both the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester, after which he entered the Army and was assigned to the award-winning Third Army Band as a music arranger. He loved playing piano with his combo, the “Mood Masters,” at officers’ club and bars.

Upon discharge from the army, he attended UCLA to study with Lukas Foss, whose music he had found compelling and who remained an important mentor. Stern returned to Eastman for his Ph.D. in composition.

robert stern Stern was recruited to teach composition and theory in the department of music and dance at UMass Amherst in 1964 by then-department chair Philip Bezanson, and he remained with the department until his retirement in 2002. Over the years, he delighted in making music with and writing music for his many close colleagues.

In February, the department honored him with a special performance, during which he was lauded by friends and colleagues as a brilliant educator, composer, and “the personification of sensitivity and respectfulness.”

Stern’s music has been performed throughout the U.S. as well as in Europe, China, South America, Japan and Israel by such prominent ensembles and artists as the Beaux Arts String Quartet, Collage, the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Contemporary Chamber Players at the University of Chicago, the Eastman Musica Nova, Yehudi Wyner, Joel Smirnoff, Gilbert Kalish, Marni Nixon, Jan Opalach, Joel Krosnick and the Gregg Smith Singers.

During his 38 years with the department of music and dance, Stern was the recipient of numerous grants, including those from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities and the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund. He was awarded fellowships from the MacDowell, Millay, and Yaddo Colonies, and awards from ASCAP and the Premio Musicale Citta di Trieste International Competition.

He received commissions from the Library of Congress McKim Fund, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, the Manchester International Cello Festival, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. His works have been recorded on many labels and published by G. Schirmer, Rinaldo Music Press, and Transcontinental Music. In 1990 he was recognized by UMass Amherst with the award of the Faculty Fellowship.

He became involved in the exciting new field of electronic music and the experiment of Hampshire College as a visiting professor of electronic music there in that college’s early years.

The 1962 publication of “I never Saw another Butterfly,” children’s poems and drawings from the Terezin ghetto, moved him tremendously, and he developed a deep interest in the artistic expression that emerged from Terezin, from the concentration camps, and in the ability of artists worldwide to create art while living in dire circumstances. He visited Terezin and met some of the then-adult surviving authors of those poems. Many of his compositional works from that time forward were responses to the Nazi Holocaust, and as the years went by, with the growing evidence that “Never Again” was a hollow cry.

Ten years later, he completed the oratorio, “Shofar,” working with Amherst writer Catherine Madsen, who wrote what he considered a “stirring and heartbreaking” libretto. [Recording of this work shown farther down on this webpage] “Shofar” explores the relationship between God and humankind through the biblical experience at Sinai and the four shofar calls used during the Jewish Days of Awe. The shofar calls represent wholeness, brokenness, devastation, and finally a return to wholeness. Ultimately, the oratorio finds, of the relationship of humankind and God:

“each craved a kinder lover,
we only have each other,
we make the world together,
there is no other labor.”

Stern is survived by his wife Judith, son Aaron and his stepchildren, Noah (Catherine Popper), Rachael (Al Weisz) and Seth Eckhouse (Catherine),

A memorial service will be held Monday, Sept. 3 at 1 p.m. at the Jewish Community of Amherst on, 742 Main St. Gathering for shiva minyans will be 7-9 p.m. on Sept. 3 and 4.


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






robert stern




In April of 1987, Stern was in Chicago for the convention of the American Society of University Composers, and we arranged to meet and have a conversation.


Bruce Duffie:   You’re both a composer and a teacher?

Robert Stern:   Yes, at the University of Massachusetts since 1964.

BD:   This is one of the things I like to ask composers who are also teachers.  Is musical composition something that really can be taught, or must it be just inbred into each different composer?

robert stern RS:   That is a difficult question.  I don’t think ‘teach’ is quite the appropriate term.  The best one can do is guide a young student, and the first thing, before you can guide that student as to what might be appropriate or not appropriate and might or might not work, is that the student has to have a technique.  All the best intentions in the world about wanting to write music can’t quite be realized unless you have the technical skill to handle the materials.  This is much like a pianist wanting to do the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto while not being able to play a G major scale!  [Both laugh]  One has to know the line, one has to know counterpoint, one has to know harmony, and then once those skills are absorbed by the young composer, essentially the young composer’s instincts will carry him or her a long, long way.  Beyond that, it’s difficult to know.  Sometimes I have to guard myself when I’m guiding a young student.  I have to be careful not to tell them what I would do because it’s their work.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want a lot of little Robert Sterns coming around?

RS:   That’s right.  One has to point to a passage and say,
“Something seems askew here.  What do you think it is?”  You try to make them aware exactly what’s not working at a particular passage.  Sometimes a note is absolutely inappropriate, and in that case, you can say there are blacks and whites in composition.  Something is not particularly appropriate in a particular passage, given the particular language that the young composer is absorbing at that time.  You can spot it, and you can say, There is something that is absolutely not appropriate in terms of the context of your musical language.

BD:   But you still want the young composer to figure it out?

RS:   They should try to figure that out, and you must guard against telling him or her exactly what to do.

BD:   Are you ever surprised by the solutions they come up with?

RS:   Very surprised!  Sometimes they’re not the solutions that you would choose as a composer, but they’re appropriate, and they might be appropriate for what the student wants to do, because it’s their music.  A lot of them are very, very interested in being original, and that idea of originality is rather quite silly.  They come in, and you ask them what music they like, and they want to write their own music.  They’re not interested in what everyone else is writing.  Well, you can’t write out of a vacuum.  Your only point of view has to come from your experiences as a listener, and you write from experience.

BD:   What kind of backgrounds do your students typically have?

RS:   When they first come, it’s rather limited in Twentieth Century music.  You have to get them to listen to a lot of Twentieth Century music, and music in general.  Usually they’ll latch onto a composer.  I have a young student now who’s writing a string quartet, and it sounds like Bartók, but that’s okay.

BD:   He’ll outgrow it?

RS:   One doesn’t worry about that.  Ned Rorem once said that if it sounds like Bartók, don’t worry about it.  You’ll make it your own someday, and that’s absolutely true.  It’s not an easy proposition, this teaching business.

BD:   Are you almost practicing amateur psychology when trying to guide them by find out things by themselves?

RS:   To a large extent.  I don’t play armchair psychiatrist, although sometimes they come with some personal problems, and there’s this little angst there, and you have to try and deal with it.  One-to-one teaching in that sense is very intense.  You get to know your students very, very well, and sometimes they pour out their personal problems to you, and you have to be careful to draw the line as to where you can engage and get involved in their own personal lives.  Yet, you are involved.  It’s a very personal thing, composition.  They’re pouring out their creative hearts to you, so to speak.

BD:   Is music the place to pour out your heart and your own personal things?

RS:   If they have the instincts to do so, it’s a very good place to do it.  I tell them that it’s not an easy thing to do.  Writing is not easy.  They come, and they think somehow those things are going to appear on the page very quickly as if by magic.  They suddenly realize that composition takes a lot of work, and you have to do it consistently.  You can’t pick an hour here and an hour there.  You have to work at it because it’s a technique.  You have to build it up through sheer practice.

BD:   In your music, or in the music of the young composers, where is the balance between the inspiration and technique?

RS:   That’s a good question.  Those have to work in tandem.  One has to have the instincts and the ideas and the imagination.  That cannot be taught.  A student either has that kind of imagination
and an ear for soundor he doesn’t.  They can develop it through absorbing on their own, but you can’t teach them that.  But if they have those instincts, then you can teach them the technique, and somehow bring those two parameters togetherthe intellect and the imaginationand when they can work together, it’s wonderful but not easy.

BD:   How do you balance your own life between teaching and composing?

RS:   Ha!  That’s a tight-rope.  That is sure difficult to manage.  It’s hard.  It’s the plight of the American composer.  In American society, it’s very difficult for a composer to subsist entirely by writing music
unless you branch out to commercial work, or film music, if you are lucky to break into that, and if you want to break into that.  One has to teach, really.  One can give up the teaching and take a cold water flat in New York to be where the action is, but you have to balance what you’re giving up there with what teaching gives you, especially if you have a family.

BD:   Is teaching satisfying for you?

RS:   Oh, sure, yes.  Sometimes it
s what a student gives back to you.  When it’s a two-way proposition, it’s terribly satisfying, but when you’re pouring out your guts to them, giving the best teaching you have, and they’re not giving anything in return and there’s no reciprocity, then it’s damn frustrating and very tiring, and very, very energy-draining so that it influences your own creative output.  But if there’s an exciting student out there who’s really producing, it helps you as a composer.  You grow as a composer because you feed into each other.  You really do feed each other that way, and that’s when it’s wonderful, and you feel excited about it.  But if that doesn’t happen, it’s very draining.

BD:   If you had unlimited financial resources, would you still teach a little bit?

RS:   I probably would.  I thought about that recently, and I would probably take more leaves of absence without pay.  But I would always want to come back and renew myself in some teaching capacity.  I’m not ready to give up teaching now, not at all.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk about some of your music.  Are you basically pleased with the performances that you’ve heard of your music?

RS:   Recently I have, but not always.  I’ve sometimes found they’re excellent, and sometimes they’re not well-prepared, especially based on the difficulty of the work.  Recently I’ve been quite pleased.  For example, the work that was done at the American Society of University Composers Convention here by the Chorale was really quite professional.  It was a very good-sounding chorus, very well prepared, very well-rehearsed, and I was really quite pleased with it.  I’m at the stage in my life when I’m not in the mood for bad performances.  I’d rather not have any performances than have a bad performance.  When you’re a student, you want to hear everything you’ve written, regardless of its quality, because you want to learn.

robert stern BD:   Just to hear how it comes out?

RS:   Just to hear how it’s coming out.  That’s one thing.  But when you get to this stage in life, I’m really not patient with bad performances.  I’d rather not have any.  I suppose the one exception to that would be if it’s a work for orchestra.  The chances of hearing a work for orchestra are not as great as they are for chamber music, just because of the sheer economics of it.  I had a teacher at UCLA some years ago who said that a bad reading by an orchestra is better than no reading at all, and I think that’s probably true.

BD:   But not in chamber music or solo works?

RS:   [Laughs]  Let me put it this way... you can have a bad reading of a work, but when it’s out there in the public, that’s something I’m not interested in.  But just to hear a work for orchestra, if you have only one chance to have a piece professionally read, and get some kind of tape, I’d rather have that than no reading at all, even though it might not be a very good reading.  But as far as public performance, yes, I prefer not to hear my music badly done, because people hear that, and the lay person doesn’t know whether it’s the performance or if it’s the work, and very often it’s the work!  [Both laugh]  But more than often it might be the performance, so I’m very guarded about that these days.

BD:   With the few opportunities to get symphonic works performed, do you shy away from writing for orchestra?

RS:   I wrote a lot of works for orchestra when I was in Rochester because it was an orchestrally-orientated school, and I heard everything I wrote, so that was great.  Then when I got out of Rochester in 1964, the next orchestral piece I wrote was in 1972.  It was on commission, and that’s the reason why I wrote it, and so I heard that.  As a matter of fact, that’s been recorded.  The last work I wrote was in 1978, and it was a work for full orchestra that won an international prize, but I haven’t heard that yet.  I simply wanted to write it.  I was compelled to write it.  It was the result of a trip to Israel, and I was very taken with the whole Dead Sea area.  So, I wrote a piece called The Dead Sea [Yam Hamelach], which, curiously enough, is going to be read by a free-lance professional orchestral in Boston in May.  I’ll hear that for the first time, so it is difficult to get things read.

BD:   I would think it would be special if you had an orchestra, say, the Jerusalem Philharmonic, that would go to the area of the Dead Sea and then play that piece.

RS:   As a matter of fact, the second movement is dedicated to someone who works in that whole area.  He said that when his project will be publicly presented, it would be wonderful to have the symphony played on the top of Masada.  That’s a wonderful place to have a symphony played! 
It sounds like a very romantic vision to have your piece done in the lovely typography of the Dead Sea area.  It’s a great idea, but that’ll never happen, I fear.  I’ll settle for this reading in May in Boston.

BD:   I asked about the performances of music.  What about the recordings?  Are you pleased with them?

RS:   The recordings are really quite good because you have time.  Ideally, you think you’re going to get the perfect performance but you’re limited in the time that you have in the studio, and the more passages you re-tape thinking they’re going to get better, often they get worse because you’re simply doing them over and over again.  No recording has ever been perfect.  That’s virtually impossible.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect recording?

RS:   I don’t think there is really a chance to get everything exactly as you want it.  I’ve never been able to cover everything, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether you cover everything.  If you get the general shape of the work, and the mikes are set up right, and sonically the work is recorded in the best kinds of surroundings, that’s probably the best you can hope for, especially when you have limited rehearsal time.  I had a piece for tape and orchestra, and we had half an hour to do it at the end of the session.  You don’t have much time for re-takes there, and you have to set up for what you’ve got, and it’s amazing we got what we got!  We came out actually quite well.

BD:   How long is the piece itself?

RS:   The piece is about eight minutes.  It’s not long, but nonetheless, eight minutes of music to record in half an hour with tape to boot is a para-musical issue.  It’s not easy.

BD:   Let’s talk about some of your pieces that have been recorded...

RS:   The first work of mine that was done early was the Elegy for String Orchestra [In Memoriam Abraham] that Howard Hanson recorded with Eastman Rochester Symphony on Mercury.  It’s been reissued on Eastern Rochester Archives.  There was a fellow, Edward Benjamin, who was an industrialist, who felt that music was too loud.  So, he had a contest for music for quiet listening, and it’s on an album called Music for Quiet Listening.


robert stern To quote the informative liner notes to give the interesting circumstances from which these compositions originated, Edward B. Benjamin (1897-1980) "was a New Orleans industrialist who lived part of the year in Louisiana, part of the year in North Carolina, and the remaining months in travels dictated by his widespread activities. Wherever he was, his passionate interest in music was unflagging and inventive (...). In 1953 Mr. Benjamin offered to Howard Hanson, director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, funds for the establishment of an annual prize in composition, to be called the Edward B. Benjamin Award for Restful Music. Dr. Hanson appointed a committee of judges from his Composition faculty, and this jury was responsible in each subsequent year for choosing a composition written by one of the student composers at the School that seemed best to introduce restfulness in the listener. Mr. Benjamin believed deeply in the performance of music that, again to use his own phrase, "charms and soothes". His enthusiasm was such that multiple awards were sometimes given each year until 1971, when the award was discontinued. This album presents nine of the award-winning compositions, in addition to three other pieces by Eastman School composers."  [Also on the LP is a work by Ron Nelson, as well as selections by several others. The CD re-issue adds pieces by Kent Kennan, and Wayne Barlow.]


That’s a very early work of mine.  Then I have a work that’s on CRI which is for soprano, cello and piano.  It’s a big cycle based on music from Terezin.  It’s from the wonderful children’s poetry called I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a very beautiful set of ghetto poetry by children.  I’m playing, with Joel Krosnick, who is now cellist with the Juilliard Quartet, and Dorothy Ornest, my colleague, is the soprano.  [The LP jacket is shown below-right.  Vis-à-vis that disc, see my interviews with Olly Wilson, and Bertram Turetzky (who plays bass on the Wilson piece.  Ornest is seen with Stern in the photo farther up on this webpage.]  Then I have a work for orchestra and tape, which was a commission from the Springfield Symphony called Carom.  I also have a work for double women’s chorus, tape, viola, piano, celeste, and percussion called Three Chinese Poems.  One chorus sings in English, and the other sings in Chinese with tape.  Then I have a new work coming out by the Gregg Smith Singers doing the very choral work that was recently done here at Northwestern by the University Chorale called The Seafarer.  There are some other things that are possible, but those are the things that are out, or coming out.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   For whom do you write?

robert stern RS:   Essentially, I write for myself, what pleases me, but that’s a very significant question today.  I write for a lot of people.  I hope I can communicate with the audience, and in that sense I hope I reach my audience.  Ultimately I write for myself.  I also hope my professional colleagues will like the music, but initially, if I’m pleased with the sound, that’s the bottom line.  I have to be happy with it.  I know enough about my own workswhat works and doesn’t workand what I like.  I’m formed as a composer, so in that sense I do write for myself, and I’m pretty sure of what will work and what won’t work as far as I’m concerned.  Whether the audience absorbs it or not is something else.  It so happens that my style is fairly lyric and fairly melodic, so it generally reaches the public, and communicates with them.  But I don’t consciously try to reach the public.  I hope my music naturally will reach the public.  That’s what’s important to me.

BD:   Talking about the various styles, do you feel that you are part of a lineage of composers?

RS:   Yes, I come out of essentially a romantic tradition.  I don’t mean the new romanticism that is very much in the air today.  My music has always been generated by lyric impulses which come essentially out of the Nineteenth Century, but only in its gesture, not in terms of taking a certain harmonic language of the Nineteenth Century, which a lot of composers are doing today.  It sounds like Schumann.  [Laughs]  I’m not interested in writing music that sounds like Schumann.  That’s been done.  Robert Schumann wrote very beautifully, and I don’t think I can improve on that.  So in that sense it comes out of that lyric tradition, and also it comes out of a whole tradition of Bach.  We all write counterpoint, and we all deal with harmonic structures.  It’s cumulative.  It’s a whole era.  If you like as much music as I do, and you embrace as much music as a composer should, it’s a composite lineage that you’re coming out of, from Mediaeval straight up to the Twentieth Century.

BD:   Are you also a performer?

RS:   Yes, a pianist
not solo playing, though I have done some solo playingit’s more in chamber settings.  I play with a colleague of mine who is a double bassist, so we do a lot of recitals with double bass and piano.

BD:   [Musing]  Such an unwieldy instrument...

RS:   It certainly is, but it’s fun.

BD:   Have you written for him?

RS:   I’ve written for him, which is nice because when you write for your good colleagues and you work with them, that’s a wonderful kind of interaction.

BD:   Are you a better composer because you are also a performer?

RS:   Yes, definitely.  If you can maintain your activity as a performer, it makes you aware of the whole area of a public performance, and what it means to perform, what it means to get out on a stage
that you die each time you go out on a stage a little bitand what it means in terms of performance difficulties, chamber music, what things work and don’t work.  It’s very important, and that’s why I like to keep my finger in, although I don’t practice every day.  I only really practice when there’s a performance coming up, and that’s when I have to do very, very significant practicing and rehearsal.  But absolutely, it’s very important.  One does feed the other, and it really does help me as a composer.

BD:   Are you a better performer of other people’s music because you are also a composer?

RS:   Oh, absolutely.  Oh, sure!  There’s no question about that, because I’m aware stylistically of what’s happening.  I play a lot of different kinds of music, and I’m sympathetic to what the musical language is today.  Therefore, I can project it fairly clearly, and much better than if I were not a composer.  That doesn’t mean to say that if you’re just a pure performer you will not do so well.  There are wonderful performers who are not composers who play magnificently.

BD:   But you look at it differently?

RS:   Yes, I do.  I do look at it differently.  Probably a performer should look at it as a composer, and a lot of the best performers do really get into the music in a very real sense.

BD:   Now you say the musical language of today.   What is the musical language of today... or have we got so many?

robert stern RS:   There’s so many out there in the Twentieth Century.  There always was an enormous musical cafeteria out there, but today it’s even more overwhelming.  If I were a young composer coming up, I would have a very difficult time knowing what to choose.  The nice thing about today is that you can pick anything you want, and not feel ashamed of it.  Anything goes.  Eclectic has almost become a style.  It’s not like post-War World Two music, which was very serial-orientated.  There were a lot of people that jumped onto that serial bandwagon, and that was kind of an international style.  Not everyone embraced serialism, but a large percentage of the composers were, to some extent, influenced by the serial movement.  There are composers out there still writing serial music to be sure, but there is certainly more to choose from.  There’s the whole Minimalist movement.  If young composers feel they want to embrace all those things and try them, fine, because if you don’t try them, you can’t form your own language.  But one has to be careful not to jump onto that bandwagon just because it is in vogue to do so.  One has to make the music, and that means to follow one’s own instincts.  By my age, I know my instincts, and I know what language I want to pursue.  I’m aware of what’s out there, but I also know myself.  So, for a young composer it is hard, but, as I said earlier, a young composer should not worry about sounding like someone else.  If you really want to write a minimalist piece, go out and do it because you have to get it out of your system.  Then, if it doesn’t work, fine, but you’ve purged yourself of that.  I tell my students they’ve got to get it down on paper regardless of what it looks like because you can’t make any judgments unless you see it.  You can’t just think about a piece.  You’ve got to get it on the page, and you have to look at it, and then you can take the time with it.  But unless you get it down there, there’s nothing to think about.

BD:   I assume, though, you don’t encourage people to be unique just for the sake of being unique.

RS:   No, that will happen.  In the beginning that’s not necessary.  The profile will emerge, and one does not have to worry about it at the beginning.  If it sounds like Bartók, fine!  It’s a good model.  I can’t think of a better model than Bartók, or Hindemith, or Stravinsky.  Look at Reich, and even Glass.  They never started that way.  They evolved into this Minimalist tradition, but after they really have gone through paying their dues by writing a lot of other music.

BD:   Where’s music going today?

RS:   I don’t know!  [Laughs]  I really don’t know.  Clearly, there is a kind of a Romantic language in the air, and the only problem with it is that it gets awfully facile.  There’s something a little bit fake about it.  I don’t mind the Romantic tradition, but I do mind when composers really dip into the hip-pocket of Schumann and Chopin, and write that kind of music because that’s not really dealing with substantive harmonic issues.  That’s simply using someone else’s harmonic language as far as I’m concerned.  I, myself, am interested in harmonic issues, but in a more substantive way and in a more interesting way than simply taking Schumann, and Chopin, and Liszt.  In answer to your question, I don’t really know where it
s going.  It’s going in a lot of different directions, and wherever it goes, it will go, and wherever it takes us, it will take us, and that’s healthy.  There’s always an avant-garde movement, and that’s great.  We need a lot of things out there in the music environment.  We need the tonalists, we need the serialists, we need the avant-garde, and we need the performance-orientated music, theatrical music, and it always will be that way.  The pendulum keeps swinging.  We had this very severe serial music, and then the pendulum shifted over into the Romantic.  It’ll probably shift back to a more severe approach, a more controlled approach, and then it’ll shift back.  Thats the whole Apollonian and Dionysian swing back and forth throughout the history of music.  It’ll happen.  The cycle will repeat itself.

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

RS:   Essentially to communicate, to reach a public, but the public has to make an effort to move towards the composer.  Music really shouldn
t just entertain in that sense.  When people go to a concert, some really want to be entertained.  You have to listen very actively.  You have to give it a chance.  You don’t have to necessarily understand it, but you have to listen actively with an open ear.  That’s the obligation of the public.  They have to do that.  The performer has got to go out there and play some modern music.  The orchestras have to play more new music.  The string quartets have to play more new music, and they’re beginning to do so.  The composer has to try to reach out there, but still be himself or herself, not for the sake of trying to reach the public and to pacify them.  You have to write your own music.  If it reaches out there and touches them, fine!  That’s what I try to do.  I don’t know if that’s really explaining it...  It’s a very difficult question to answer, but music has to communicate, for whatever that term means.  It has to reach someone out there.   It has to reach a set of ears and people who actively listen.  In Beethoven’s time, that was the new music, and people just absorbed all that new music.  There was great anticipation for a new Brahms score, or Beethoven, or whatever.  Today we have this whole tradition of music that’s built up.  Beethoven ruined for all of us!  [Both laugh]  In a way, that’s true.  Freeing himself from the cult of the artist started with Beethoven, and it was picked up in the Nineteenth Century.  That whole tradition was built up by all that literature, and that Nineteenth Century vision of the artist, and it’s made it very difficult for the Twentieth Century.  So, the public is still geared towards that Beethoven-style vision and the Nineteenth Century.  It’s still with us, make no mistake about it.

BD:   Then how can we make more encouragement for performances of new music, and gain more acceptance of new music by performers and audiences?

RS:   [He thinks]  Well, the conductors can do more.  Now there’s a composer-in-residence where these very good composers are resident with the Chicago Symphony and the St. Louis Symphony.  [At the time of this interview (1987), it was John Coriglaino in Chicago, and Joan Tower in St. Louis.]  Part of their job is to reach out to the community, and talk to the people, and meet with the audiences, and get some lines of communication open between the audiences and the orchestras.  It also involves this business of pre-concert talks, and talking to the composer, and seeing the composer as actually a human being who has a personality, and who’s not some really strange kind of creature.  But it’s up to the composer not to talk down to that audience; to raise that audience, and not get too technical.  On the other hand, they should not get too simplistic, and not shake that audience off.  You have to reach out to them, and they have to reach out to us.  That’s certainly one way to do it.  Also, people like you who are interviewing composers and playing their scores on the radio.  That’s very important.  The radio is still an important vehicle for communication.  Television certainly can do more in that sense, but I don’t know what else.  It’s tough, and it’s going to be a long haul.  It’s not an easy proposition.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you find composing fun?

RS:   [Thinks a moment, then says reluctantly]  Yes, and sometimes it’s agonizing, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  It’s agony, but at the same time it’s satisfying, especially when you solve a problem.  If you’ve got a compositional position that you’re trying to solve, and you’ve worked at it, and you’ve agonized over it, and you finally solve it, that’s a very good feeling for me to be able to do that.  It’s fun in the sense of it being satisfying.  I would equate fun with satisfaction.  It’s work.  Sometimes there’s a piece which goes smoothly.  If you’re writing for a particular ensemble that is requiring not difficult music, and an easy harmonic language that you’re very familiar with, sometimes it writes itself very quickly and I really am having fun doing it because things are going smoothly.  There’s a real flow to the notes, and that’s nice.  But that doesn’t happen too often.  Usually it’s a struggle.

BD:   Are you ever surprised where the music goes, or where the music takes you?

RS:   Oh, sure!  I’m sometimes surprised when I hear it, too, even though you have a very good sense of what a piece will sound like
especially a work for the orchestra because of all the multitudinous combinations.  You’re always surprised, sometimes pleasantly surprised, and sometimes not so pleasantly surprised.  Sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t work, and then you have to go back and change.  You have to revise.  The whole revision process is almost inevitable, unless it’s a very simple piece and you’re absolutely sure you know what it will sound like.

stern BD:   This revision, of course, is right around the first performance, or maybe right after the first performance?

RS:   That’s right.  Joan Tower was talking about it recently.  She heard the third movement of her Silver Ladders, and she said she was in agony because she thought she had really miscalculated.  She made some revisions, but she said that the orchestra had to get used to it.  When they’re a reading a work for the first time in the orchestra, the composer has to understand that it’s the orchestra’s first experience of the music.  A composer has a vision of the music, and it’s an idealized vision.  You know what you want it to sound like.  You’ve made love to those notes hour after hour.  You don’t realize that the orchestra out there has never seen it before, so you have to be patient with them.  That’s why first readings are agonizing, and it’s not always the composer’s fault.  It’s just a first reading, and that’s a rough reading.  You try to get the right notes at the right time.  You don’t worry about nuance.  That’ll come with rehearsal
if you have enough rehearsal timeand that’s another problem.  There’s hardly ever enough rehearsal time, especially for orchestral music, because of the economics.  It’s very difficult.

BD:   Do performers or conductors ever find things in your music that you didn’t know were there?

RS:   Oh sure, and they sometimes make suggestions.  They have some very good ideas, absolutely, especially when you’re working with a soloist, and you want to try a harmonic or you want to try a bowing.  Usually a good performer will say,
“Let’s try this,” or, “What do you think of this?  It might be easier if we try it this way.

BD:   If they say something else might be easier, are they just dodging a difficult passage?

RS:   No, not the people I’ve worked with.  As a matter of fact, performers are very challenged by hardness.  Sometimes, if there is an extremely high note, they try to play it and they might not make it.  Then they’re challenged by it, and they’ll say,
Don’t worry about it, I’ll get it.  But what happens is that they might get it some of the time, but not all the time.  You don’t want to get it ten percent of the time; you want them to get it ninety-nine percent of the time, or a hundred percent of the time.

BD:   But you still want that specific high note?

RS:   I don’t want that high note if they’re going to miss it ninety percent of the time!  If that’s going to be a problem, and they’re good performers, then I’d rather change the passage to make it more practical.  Who wants a note that is at the peak of the piece, and they’re not going to make the note regardless of how good they are?  I’d rather change it for the sake of making the piece successful.  One has to be on guard against that.  Performers have a lot of pride about what they can do and what they can’t do.

BD:   Then a hundred years from now, someone looks at the score and says,
But he originally wrote this note, and now we can get that very easily.

RS:   That’s true.  The whole history of instrumental technique grows.  Tchaikovsky writes high bassoon parts in the ensemble, and Rimsky-Korsakov, too.  There’s that whole Russian tradition, and Stravinsky, picking up from Rimsky-Korsakov, his teacher, opens up The Right of Spring with a solo bassoon, and it still is difficult!

BD:   Yet everybody plays it!

RS:   Stravinsky pushed instrumental music, and that’s the way it goes.  That’s progress.

BD:   Are you trying to push music?

RS:   No, not really.  I don’t consider myself a revolutionary in that sense.  Actually, my music is very deceptive.  It sounds easy but it’s really very hard, because it’s very specific harmonically.  You have to have the players playing in tune, and it is thin music, it’s not thick.  Its textures are transparent, therefore things come through.  So, in that sense my music is not easy.  It’s deceptive.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are we perhaps getting too many young composers coming along today?

RS:   No, not really.  [Laughs]  Well, there are certainly more today than there were, but I don’t think there are too many.  There are lot of people who want to write music out there, and a lot of really gifted people out there.  There are some people who think that there are too many, and maybe too many people do want to write music.  But I think it was Schoenberg who felt that we need that large body of people to write music to see who comes out of that bunch.  What emerges, that’s the really gifted people.  I am annoyed, sometimes, that some people, particularly the manufacturers of electronic music make composition a little too easy.  There’s a lot of PR involved with a sound you can produce.  You can write anything with a synthesizer, and it bothers me that there’s a certain image that they try to project.

BD:   Are they really writing or are they just gathering sounds?

RS:   They’re gathering sounds.  There are a lot of people doodling in electronic music, and a lot of people that doodle in composition.  You can’t stop people from doodling, as long as you do it seriously.  I take it very seriously, and I expect other people to take it seriously, and when they don’t, that’s when I’m not very happy about things.  It takes technique, and it takes work.

robert stern BD:   What constitutes a great piece of music?

RS:   I don’t know.  I certainly don’t like the term ‘masterpiece’.  I can’t answer that question exactly, but music must, to some degree, create a mood.  There must be some sense of mood about it, whatever that mood is.  Sometimes you can create the mood very fast.  The opening of a work is actually very important.  It’s the audience’s first sonic experience of the work, and the closing is very important.  Sometimes openings are very telling, but beyond that they lose steam.  It’s not really hard to open up a piece to get the audience’s attention.

BD:   But you’ve got to keep it going?

RS:   Yes, you’ve got to keep it going.  You’ve got to maintain it.  You need a decent idea.  I suppose what makes a good piece of music is the idea has to be viable, but a lot of people differ on what makes a viable idea.  A lot of people would take exception, but one thing music has to have to be a really good piece is it has got to have line.  It’s got to have some sense of line, as line precedes color.  Before you start coloring your work, linearly it must be viable, and it has to have some sense of counterpoint.  You have to be able to write counterpoint, and you have to have some sense of harmony.  But remember, it is not that if you write all those things it’s going to be necessarily a great piece of music.  There are a lot of people who can write sterile lines, and sterile counterpoint, and sterile harmony.  It’s just not good.  But if that can be done with imagination and a creative mood, you might have a good piece there.  But you’ve got to have a good idea, and the good ideas are hard to come by.

BD:   Are the ideas of Robert Stern good ideas?

RS:   I hope they are, but generally you know when they’re good.  A composer has instincts about that.  You know when you have a good tune.  The Nineteenth Century composers did.  Tchaikovsky knew when he had a good one.  I had a former teacher, Bernard Rogers, a great teacher, a wonderful composer, who had said,
A good idea’s worth repeating, and a bad idea’s worth nothing.  That’s about the size of it.  But generally you know when you have a good idea, and if it’s good, you can deal with it, and you should repeat it, and vary it in some sense.

BD:   Is
Rock music?

RS:   Sure it is.  I don’t particularly care for it.  It’s not very interesting to me, but it sure is music.  There are sounds that are organized in some sense of time, so that, in a strict sense, is music.

BD:   That’s very clinical.

RS:   Yes, it is very clinical, but that’s a good definition in music
sounds and silence organized in some sense of time, and Rock music is part of that.  It’s a little loud for me, and it’s very repetitive, and also not very interesting to me.

BD:   Should the concert managements try to entice the Rock audience and viewers of TV into the concert halls?

RS:   Actually, they’re starting to do just that.  A few musicians from the Rochester Philharmonic are actually trying to get people into the concert hall, through MTV, to introduce them to the classics.  For example, they did something with Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.  They had these wonderful pictorial images of the scaffold as part of the whole story of the work with the hopes of drawing the people in.  It’s an extension.  It’s not quite Rock but it’s using the actual Symphonie Fantastique in the background.  That’s the thing to try to entice the people to come in.  It’s a visual adjunct to the music, though I’m not sure I always agree with visual adjuncts to music to try to entice people into the hall.  [Sighs]

BD:   Then are there new patrons going to be disappointed when they come and have aural stimulation but not the visual?

RS:   Maybe, but they’re marketing that up in Rochester.  I’ve seen a lot of Rock videos on MTV, and I think using television in other ways to get people involved.  Sometimes there’s a special on a composer.  They did one on Joan Tower, and another one on Joseph Schwantner.  They play their music from a tape of a performance, and then are seen talking in an intelligent way about it.  That’s one way to do it.

BD:   That would make an interesting documentary.

RS:   Yes, an interesting a documentary to see, in their home, a composer talk about his or her music.  I
m for that, except that the sound is not very good.  [As this is being prepared for the website in 2018, TV sound has made vast improvements the thirty-one years since this conversation took place.]  Hopefully, you can entice them into the hall to hear it.  There’s nothing quite like it.  Music is also a theatrical experience.  If you listen on CDs and the radio, that’s all right in the privacy of your home, but you lose the image of orchestral musicians coming into the hall, gathering their instruments, tuning up and getting ready, and so on.  The whole visual and aural preparation of a concert is very exciting.

BD:   You can see them psyche themselves up for the performance.

RS:   Yes, just looking at them.  For me it is part of the experience.  There’s a theatrical aspect to performance that is very wonderful to me.  Rubinstein was a wonderful pianist, and he left these great recordings.  But when as a kid and he came out on the stage, we knew he was going to play the hell out of that Steinway.  That was wonderful, just to see such aristocracy, and such playing.  It was the same with Horowitz, for that matter, or when I saw Heifetz.  Seeing all those wonderful artists play, there’s nothing quite like it.  There’s a visual stimulation there in addition to when they played their instruments.  They knew how to play.

stern BD:   Does that translate well onto the television?  Are televised concerts any good?

RS:   I don’t think it translates well.  It’s like watching a ball game.  They focus in on what they want you to see.  For my area, if you go to Fenway Park, you see that whole Fenway Park.  You can look anywhere you want.  You can look at the outfield, you can see the players
the performers, if you willgetting ready and going up to the plate.  You feel there’s a tensing up because you have an aura of the whole thing.  It’s like going into Orchestra Hall here in Chicago.  The first time I’ve been in Orchestra Hall was the other day.  I was way up in the Gallery, and I almost had vertigo it was so high!  But I looked down and saw that wonderful hall, and that wonderful orchestra, and heard that sound which is a really unlike almost any other sound.  It’s a great orchestra, and I loved it.  It was as much a visual experience for me as it was an aural experience.  I really feel that’s a very important component of performance, the visual component.  It’s not the primary component, obviously, but very important.  There were people up there miming their instruments, and that was no fun.  [Both laugh]  There are a lot of contemporary composers who actually theatrically are doing that.  For parts of their works, the performers make the motion to play and there’s no sound, but that is in relation to sound.  The first time I heard that was at a rehearsal in Tanglewood.  There was a Marucio Kagel piece called Sonant where everyone made the motions of playing.  Then during the rehearsal, someone who was in the middle of the audienceone of the other composersstarted to make motion of applauding, but his hands never met!  It was a very funny bit.  It was very funny, but the Kagel piece was the first time I’d ever seen anything like thateverybody was strumming the guitar but not making any sound.  It was very strange.

BD:   When I was in High School, my friends played a piece for saxophone quartet, and one of interesting noises they made was the slapping of the keys.

RS:   Oh sure, the slap-keys or the slap-tongue.  They can do that with their saxes.  The slap tongue is a great sound.

BD:   Do you use those kinds of things?

RS:   Sometimes.  My music is generally not colorful in that sense because it doesn’t call for that kind of color.  The one piece I have is for tape and orchestra, in which the tape’s interacting with the orchestra and I ask the brass players to remove their mouth pieces, and blow across the end.  It was supposed to simulate white noise which was on the tape, so that it was hard to distinguish what was live and what was on tape.  So I have done that, but my music is not about that because it doesn’t demand that kind of color.  The orchestration must be appropriate to the piece, and the color must be appropriate to the line that you’re doing musically.  You don’t want to force those effects onto music that doesn’t need it.  It’s not necessary.

BD:   Do you use electronics a lot or just a little?

RS:   I worked in electronics in a very, very concentrated way in the early 
70s, for about three years when Hampshire College in Amherst put a new studio in.  It is a MOOG installation, early in the electronic game.  It was analogue, back before digital, and I got very intrigued with electronic music.  It was a new sound-source for me, and I love the physicality of the studio.  I love walking in and seeing all those knobs.  That was another visual effect for me.  Actually, I wanted to be an artist when I was younger, but that never happened, obviously.  I wrote a series of works involving instruments and tapea work for violin, piano, and tape; a work for double women’s chorus and tape; and then the Carom for orchestra and tape.  They all are basically lyric works.


Hampshire College is a private liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts. It was opened in 1970 as an experiment in alternative education, in association with four other colleges in the Pioneer Valley: Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Together they have since been known as the Five Colleges or the Five College Consortium.

The college is widely known for its alternative curriculum, socially liberal politics, focus on portfolios rather than distribution requirements, and its reliance on narrative evaluations instead of grades and GPAs. In some fields, it is among the top undergraduate institutions in percentage of graduates who enroll in graduate school. Sixty-five percent of its alumni have at least one graduate degree and a quarter have founded their own business or organization. It is ranked #39 among U.S. colleges and universities by the percentage of graduates who go on to earn a doctorate degree according to National Science Foundation data.


BD:   They’re all for tape and live performers?

RS:   Tape and live, that’s right.

BD:   Never pure electronics?

robert stern RS:   Some.  Most of the sounds were electronically generated, but there were some concrete sound-sources and some vocal sounds.  The best sound is in the old Carom, and that’s because it is life-like.  It has the sound of my then five-year old son, which was altered electronically through tape speed, editing, reverb, the usual thing.  It was live, but a processed sound.  Then I wrote a big pure-tape piece of about thirty-three-minutes, that was commissioned from public radio in Amherst.  Then that was it.  I kind of burned myself out.  Also, I found that the performance of tape works was too vulnerable.  I was always afraid something was going to go wrong
that the tape was going to break, that someone was going to pull the plug, or the fuse was going to blow.  If you have a work for tape and orchestra, and the tape breaks, you can’t recover from that.  In the performance you have to stop everything and re-splice the tape, and that ruins the performance.  This is as opposed to all live musicians.  If they make a mistake, live musicians can recover.  The mind can work very quickly, and they can adjust.

BD:   What if someone breaks a string?

RS:   The breaking of the string is a mechanical problem.  I am talking about if the ensemble breaks down, they can recover.  They know where they are, and they can adjust.

BD:   But I would think the breaking of a tape would be akin to breaking a string.

RS:   A breaking of a string, that’s right, and you have to stop the performance.  That’s an analogous situation.  You can adjust most of the time, but sometimes a performance has to be stopped.

BD:   Should we breed a virtuoso technician?

RS:   No, that wouldn’t do.  I like the idea of the social interaction, of working with live performers and not have anything taped.  It’s healthy if you make mistakes.  That’s okay.  You’d like a good performance, and you don’t want things to break down, but they will always be part of a musical performance.  There’ll always be human error, and that’s the way things go.  As long as you get the sense of the music, you can recover.  One of the marvelous things about live performance is the fact that you can recover from that.  You don’t want to do that often, and you don’t make mistakes on purpose, obviously, but the capacity to recover is part of the performer’s art.  You have to be able to do that.  I played a recital with my bass colleague, and there was a little piece by Bottesini, the Fantasy on Sonnambula.  I had never done this, and I just had a lapse in concentration.  I skipped a beat.  I came in a beat too early, and I suddenly realized he was playing a dominant, and I was not.  Something happened, but we adjusted.  You hear that, you adjust, and you don’t feel good about, but you continue playing.  I never did that before, but that’s the nature of the performance.  Things happen on the stage that don’t always happen in rehearsal.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me about the particular joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

robert stern RS:   I love the human voice.  The joy is that it is a wonderfully flexible instrument, and I like working with words.  The difficulty is not so much in the human voices, but dealing with words.  Setting any text is a very, very delicate proposition.  It’s the hardest thing to do, and you have to be very sensitive to the words, because in one stroke of the pen, or pencil, you can annihilate the text.  You can absolutely destroy a text by a miscalculation of the setting.  Foss said that when a composer sets a text, such as a poem, you’re essentially violating the poem because the poem wasn’t meant to be set.  You’re taking it out of its natural habitat, and recasting it with music.  You are violating it.  He said it was an act of love, though, because you love the poem and want to try to add some dimension to it.

BD:   You hope the music enhances it?

RS:   Exactly.  Schubert, in setting Die Schöne Müllerin and other texts by Wilhelm Müller, really used third-rate German poetry.  This is not good poetry, but Schubert was able to elevate it.  He took that poetry and just lifted it.  You have to be very careful about what texts you take.  I am very careful about it.  You have to take poetry that is not too musical in and of itself, because it speaks its own music.  You also have to be careful that the images are not dripping too much musical imagery that is built into the text itself.  When setting those terrorism poems, the Terezin material, given the circumstances under which they’re written, this is a very darkened text to set.  But I avoided those texts that were graphic, and picked the more introspective texts.  I didn’t want to have a setting of ghetto poems that were too hyper-theatrical, that were too melodramatic.  It’s a dangerous business in setting texts.  You can become so dramatic that you destroy the text.

BD:   Have you written any dramatic music, or any operas?

RS:   No.  The closest thing was that setting of the Terezin pieces, which was really a dramatic cycle.  I just recently wrote a cantata based on the first part of the Book of Ruth, which was for women’s chorus, soloist and piano, and speaker.  That’s the last dramatic piece I’ve written.  Unless I were commissioned and got a lot of money, and was guaranteed a lot of performances, I would not touch opera.  It’s just not practical.

BD:   Yet if you were guaranteed performances, you would do it?

RS:   Oh, sure, but it would have to be very attractive.  So anyone out there listening...  [Both laugh]

BD:   How do you decide which commissions you will accept and which commissions you’ll turn down?

RS:   If you’re asked to do a piece, a composer should be able to adjust to almost any commission
unless it’s such anathema that it’s contrary to what the composer really wants to do.  If someone comes up and says they want a piece that involves a combination of Rock, and electronics, and theater, I couldn’t do that.  I’d tell them they’ve got the wrong guy, and they’ll have to ask someone else.  Smith College asked me to do a cantata, but it had to be geared towards a certain performance capability.  I debated in my mind whether I wanted to do that, whether I was going to have to make things so easy that it was going to compromise my work, and I decided I should be able to write something that is musically sensitive, but also something they could sing and enjoy.  So I took up that challenge.  Most of the commissions that come, I take, unless they’re absolutely out of my own aesthetic.  Then it’s silly.  That’s when it can become the real agony, and it’s no fun any more.

BD:   When you’re writing a piece of music, how do you know when it’s finished?

RS:   [Laughs heartily]  I don’t know if it was Krenek or Dallapiccola, but someone said that a piece is never done.  You can argue that there’s always something you can change.  You can want an eighth note here, or a rest rather than a quarter note, or you want put a dot to make this kind of articulation, but after a while it becomes silly, because, in that sense, you’d always be working on the same piece.  I asked an artist that once.  I was up in the MacDowell Colony when I was very young, and he had a series of paintings that were pointillistic.  I looked at him in his studio and I asked,
How do you sense when the last dot is appropriate?  He got very angry!  [Both laugh]  No, it’s a good question you’re asking.  Sometimes I have to tell myself to just get done with this piece.  Let’s not agonize over the setting of a word.  We’ve got to draw the double bar, and we’ve got to come to a conclusion.  I must get closure on this thing, or else it’s going to go on, and on, and on.  Generally, in my music, somewhere in the beginning of the piece I have a sense of what the ending is going to be like, and very often I’ll go ahead and write the ending.  I have a sense of the beginning and the end, so the cover is there, so to speak.  I never used to do that until I heard Ralph Vaughan Williams give a series of lectures at Cornell years ago.  In the mid-50s, when I was an undergraduate in Rochester, we went to Cornell to hear him talk.  It was wonderful to hear Vaughan Williams speak, and I remember him saying to the young composers, “If you know what the climax of a piece is going to be, if you have a vision of that, write it!  Don’t worry about working up to it, write it!  If you know what the ending is going to be, write it, and then fill in the blanks.  And he was right.  That was a very interesting composition lesson by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  One doesn’t have to write the work in order.  You can sketch out various parts of a piece, and then bring it together.  So I can tell when I have the ending.  I can tell the final cadence, but all the details are harder, and you can keep working on those details forever.

BD:   Do you ever go back and revise a score?

RS:   Oh, yes, sure.  There’s a point, though, when you must simply stop.

BD:   I don’t mean right around the first performance, but when you come back to it a year or two later.

RS:   In a new work, especially for orchestra, you’re lucky to get several performances.  You should have several performances before you decide whether any problems are in the performance, or if it’s you.  That’s what Joan Tower was talking about.  You have to give the piece a chance with various performers.  If you start changing things, you might be changing something that’s very good, and it was a performance problem.  Sometimes you can tell something’s not right.  You can spot it, and you re-work it, but sometimes you have to wait a while because you’re too close to the work.  You have to get away from the work, and then come back to it with a different perspective.  Generally, there’s some kind of revisions.  Most composers do revise in some sense.  Sometimes they’re major, and sometimes you realize a piece doesn’t work, so you throw it out.  You just get rid of it!

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  I hope that doesn’t happen too often.

RS:   No, no, and you can always tell when a piece is feeling right.  If you’re agonizing too much, something might be fundamentally wrong with the whole piece, and what the piece is about.  Even the look, that’s another thing.  I can tell even by the look of a piece whether something is working or not, just by the way things are looking on the page.  Sometimes you see it is not working, so you throw it out and start again.  You usually can tell.

BD:   It’s been fascinating speaking with you today.  Thank you so very much.

RS:   Thank you for your interest.




robert stern




© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 11, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1989, and again in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.