Composer Ron Nelson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|A native of Joliet, Illinois,
Ron Nelson* was born December 14, 1929. He received his bachelor of
music degree in 1952, the master’s degree in 1953, and the doctor of
musical arts degree in 1957, all from the Eastman School of Music at
the University of Rochester. He studied in France at the Ecole Normale
de Musique and at the Paris Conservatory under a Fulbright Grant in
1955. Dr. Nelson joined the Brown University faculty the following
year, and taught there until his retirement in 1993.
In 1991, Dr. Nelson was awarded the Acuff Chair of Excellence in the
Creative Arts, the first musician to hold the chair. In 1993, his
Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H) made history by winning all three major
wind band compositions – the National Association Prize, the American
Bandmasters Association Ostwald Prize, and the Sudler International
Prize. He was awarded the Medal of Honor of the John Philip Sousa
Foundation in Washington, DC in 1994. In 2006, he was awarded an
honorary doctorate from Oklahoma City University [photo at lectern farther down this page].
Dr. Nelson has received numerous commissions, including those from the
National Symphony Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic, the USAF Band and
Chorus, Rhode Island Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival, Brevard Music
Center, Musashino Wind Ensemble, and countless colleges and
universities. He has also received grants and awards from The
Rockefeller Foundation, the Howard Foundation, ASCAP, and several from
the National Endowment for the Arts.
Dr. Nelson has appeared as guest composer/conductor at a large number
of colleges and universities, including Illinois, Yale, North Texas
State, Western Michigan, Sam Houston, Lawrence, Dartmouth, Southern
Maine, CalTech, MIT, and Princeton.
Ron Nelson currently resides with his wife Michele [pictured together below in 2005] in
*He should not be confused
with Ronald A. Nelson, an arranger/composer of choral music.
-- Biography and
photographs from the composer's official website
Ron Nelson was in Chicago again in 1997 for the Midwest Band and
Orchestra Clinic, held in December of each year. I had contacted
him beforehand and arranged to meet with him at his hotel. Here
is that conversation . . . . . . . . .
originally from this area?
Ron Nelson: Yes. I
was born in Joliet.
BD: When did
you leave and why?
RN: I left because I
had to get out of there and see
the rest of the world. I came from a family where everyone stayed
in Joliet, and I just felt that I had to get out. So I went to
California when I was sixteen and said, “That’s for me.” Then I
graduated in ‘47 and went to the Eastman School of Music.
BD: Does it
please you now to come back here on a
fairly regular basis?
Yes. I seldom go to Joliet, though. I just have two or
three friends left there.
BD: You write
in all kinds of
styles and for all media but you seem to have gravitated a lot toward
the band. Is this by design or just by happenstance?
RN: Is it
time for confession?
BD: They say
it’s good for the soul. [Both laugh]
RN: I will
confess to your listeners that
I’m a closet orchestral composer. The orchestra is my true love,
but the world I found was not waiting for another Nelson piece. I
was not getting commissions for orchestral pieces. On the other
hand, the band world, having such a small history of literature, really
is looking for new music. They’re accustomed to new things,
the orchestral people are not. Orchestral audiences, as you well
know, are quite happy to hear the same thing over and over and over.
RN: But in
the band field, they’re hungry for new
works. I would have conductors call me up and ask, “Do you have
anything for us this year?” You
have no idea what that does to a composer, to be wanted.
BD: It must
really get the juices going...
and to have an outlet for your ideas.
So I devoted a lot of my energies to the band, and I think I brought
with that energy toward the band my love for the orchestra. So if
compositions for band sound, shall we say ‘unique’ or ‘different’ or
‘special,’ it’s because they’re composed with the orchestral bias for
transparency. I should also confess that I don’t like the sound
of the band — that is, of the typical band.
that anger all the players who have played
your music for thirty years?
No, but it’ll probably raise some
eyebrows. [Both laugh] I don’t like it because I don’t like
of a sea of clarinets pretending that it’s a string section. When
I grew up in Joliet, the band literature was mostly made up of
transcriptions. We’d do the finales of the Tchaikovsky Fourth
Symphony and Fifth Symphony,
and always you would wait
for the sound of those beautiful strings to come... and they never
came. It was always that huge sea of clarinets. When I went
to Eastman, I heard the Eastman Wind Ensemble — which,
as you know, is a
pared down band — so there are only a few
clarinets on a part, a few
flutes on a part and so on. I love that visceral sound of that
medium, and it kind of opened my eyes. Then I found the
percussion section, and through the percussion and the keyboard section
I started to do things with band colors that other people happened not
to be doing. So there I arrived. [To see a photo of Ron
Nelson with Frederick Fennell, the long-time conductor of the Eastman
Wind Ensemble, see my Interview with
BD: Are you
more pleased now with the colors
that you’re able to use?
yes. And now it’s
gotten even a little bit better because in my recent pieces I use
synthesizer. Quite often I’ll ask the synthesizer to use the
choir sound as background — certainly
not featured in melodic ways, but so there’s an aura of string-like
sound diffusing that band sound that I don’t like. [Note: As cited at the beginning of this
presentation, our conversation took place in 1997. Fifteen years
later I contacted Nelson just before placing this transcript on my
website, and he was very pleased. He said, "It was a pleasure to
read after all these years, a high water mark in my experience."
He then went on to say, "The use of a synthesizer turned out to be,
in practice, a pretty bad idea. Every time I've conducted one of my
pieces which included a synthesizer, I've had to ask that it be
omitted. They can be effective in professional studios, in films, with
rock groups, etc., where the sound is properly engineered, but I've not
run into that kind of expertise in schools or colleges. My best
experience was conducting my Passacaglia with the Marine Band. They used a
synthesizer with "organ pedal voice" which doubled the basso ostinato.]
BD: You don’t
want to write in the clarinet parts à
[Both laugh] It’s difficult enough to have
them play cantabile the way strings can.
BD: If you
writing all these years for the orchestra, would your music have
sounded a great deal different that it does — not
color-wise but the ideas and the forms?
yes. But since it hasn’t
happened, it’s impossible for me to say. The only recent
commission that I’ve had for orchestra was from the National Symphony
for Leonard Slatkin’s first season, and that was done a year ago.
[See my Interviews
with Leonard Slatkin.] I had to rethink some of my former
ideas about the
BD: It didn’t
come out sounding like a band piece, did
Yes! Yes and that’s what surprised me,
because it has a certain element of band-like sound to
it. Now people think that I’ve brought to the
orchestra a new sound. [Both laugh] So it’s like a tide
the other way. I just wish that I would have had more
opportunities to write for orchestra because the orchestra
really is the beautiful instrument.
BD: Now that
you’re a considerable success as a
composer of all things, can’t you seek out more orchestral commissions?
Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve never done
the seeking out process. I know some of my colleagues do even to
the point of having agents run out and
try to drum them up. I’ve just never done it.
working with the band, did you like
being able to use more different clarinets than you would
have available in the orchestra, and saxophones and all the other
Yes. The saxophone is another
instrument I have to be very careful with because most sax players
don’t use what we call the concert tone, which is a very smooth and
lovely sound. The kids quite often have the jazz sound, and I
to keep that down especially if I’m conducting a work. I may
have to just work with them to keep it low. In some of the pieces
I’ve written for twelve
clarinets and it’s great to have the choir of clarinets to come out
with this twelve-voice sonority.
miss that, of
course, in the string sound.
RN: No, I’d
just give it to the whole string
section, divisi. It’s
not that I’m trying to suggest
that the sound of twelve clarinets is similar, but if I wanted
that texture I’d divide the strings up.
BD: Early on
transcriptions for band of orchestral pieces. Should we now
perhaps, transcribe some of your band pieces for
That, in fact, may happen! There’s a
piece that I wrote when I was a senior at Eastman called Savannah River
Holiday. Howard Hanson recorded it back in the days when
were Mercury Living Presence records. [Photo at right shows Ron Nelson and Howard Hanson in 1953.]
The piece had many reincarnations and
releases, and then it came out on CD. It was picked up by Leonard
Slatkin and then by Keith Lockhart of the Boston Pops. Keith
it in the new Boston Pops recording called
American Visions. So
that piece, an orchestra piece, had been
transcribed for band and had its own life that way. It’s always
existed as its original for
orchestra, but that’s becoming popular now — after
years, my golden oldie! Now Keith is thinking of doing more of my
works. He knows of a piece that I call Sonoran
Desert Holiday, which I did do for band, which cries to be done
orchestra. I think he will have me do that for the Boston
Pops. So it will start to run the other way now.
BD: I assume,
though, that it does
give you a certain amount of satisfaction to know that your music has
been played over the years. There are so many composers whose
music just simply sits in the drawer.
true. The thing the composer
dreads most is to have the first-and-last performance. Sometimes
they don’t even get the first performance, so I’ve been
fortunate. But I’ve
waited. Here I’m sixty-eight now, and I’ve waited quite
a while for this pendulum to swing. So many years were spent
where the serial composers held forth, and we tonal people were
considered just passé, if anything at all. Now you
hear Howard Hanson’s music being done or Roy Harris’ music or things by
Schuman. [See my Interview with William
Schuman.] Audiences want melody and harmony, so there’s a
BD: And you
have a whole catalogue of it!
RN: I’m happy
to be drawn along with this.
difficult was it in the sixties and seventies
to stick to your tonality?
RN: It was
very natural. I did some twelve-tone
pieces and I wasn’t challenged by them. I didn’t feel I could
make very expressive music out of them. The difficulty in my
particular case was that I was at one of the better universities
— Brown University in Rhode Island, one of the Ivy League
I was holding up the compositional banner, so to speak, for that
school, while at Princeton there was Milton Babbitt and
Roger Sessions and all these other people. I was
considered quite out of the loop, but I was content to go on my
way. You do what you have to do.
BD: Is this
one of the bits of advice you have for
composers — to stick to your guns, whatever they
RN: Be true
to your voice. I remember one
seventeen year-old student came in. He had just graduated from
and announced to me that he was a twelve-tone composer, a serial
composer. I said, “Really?” So he pulled out a piece and
put it on the
piano. I played it for him and said, “Is that about
it?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well I didn’t play what
you wrote.” It showed that he had the technique
down to make these twelve-tone parameters work, but didn’t really
understand the sounds that he’d put down. It’s bad when
about his piece did you change?
RN: I just
purposely put in wrong notes. He didn’t realize that Arnold
spent his life knowing the classics. He knew Mozart, he knew
he knew Brahms, and that’s why he could make masterworks out of that
technique. But for a young student fresh out of high school to
unfurl the banner of serial technique without that background, the
results are just meaningless.
composer should be a result of all of
the previous generations?
RN: At least
some of it. I don’t say you have
to go through the whole history of music to learn it, but there should
be an understanding of the great masterworks, and a knowledge and a
kind of a feeling for what makes them work.
the composers today study the music of Ron
BD: Why not???
there are too many other [laughs] much more worthwhile things to study.
BD: Are you
pleased with some of the things you see on the pages of your students?
RN: Oh, yes.
But remember, I taught
at Brown University, and Brown is a liberal arts school. What
typically happens to students who go to a liberal arts school is they
for everything else that you do get there, and they become turned on to
music. Quite often they would come into the office and say,
“What should I do with the rest of my life?
What’s the meaning of life? Where is God? Should I go to
BD: And then
they would want an immediate answer!
Yes. Gradually I came to the
conclusion that the only answer is if you have to ask, don’t, because
the people who make it in graduate school — in
music in particular — are
those people who are driven. They almost cannot do anything
don’t think of the competition because they’re too busy driving
forward. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about having
spent all my life in a liberal arts background, as opposed to teaching
at Juilliard or Eastman.
BD: I assume,
though, that you feel there is a place
for the twelve-tone composers... or should we just throw them out
in the trash?
Let history decide, as it does for any
style, whether there’s validity to it. The music
that lasts is music that has something to say, and that’s the bottom
line of what I feel about music. You’ve got to say
something. If you’ve nothing to say, shut up.
Just don’t bother people. Don’t take up their time. If
paints a lousy picture, you can
look at the picture and walk by quickly. But if it’s a thirty or
minute piece that you have to ponder, then I think it’s arrogant if you
have nothing to say, so let’s let
the listeners decide whether they want to hear it or not.
BD: Gaze for
a moment into your crystal ball. Do you
think that history will be kind to it?
RN: No, but
then I thought Communism would
fall sooner than it did. [Both laugh] I’ve been wrong about
things. I thought the future of opera was TV.
BD: It still
RN: A little
parenthetical aside here... I swore there were two things I would
do. One, I would never get a doctorate degree because of
all the hoops you had to jump through. Two, I would never
write an opera.
BD: But you
RN: Opera was
my doctoral dissertation! [Both give a huge laugh] So
‘never say never,’
as they say in the Bond movies.
BD: Then let
me ask this — are you optimistic
about the future of music?
Yes. Well, sometimes I’m not.
Sometimes I worry about the fact that the classical music audience is
only about three to five percent. You can tell
me the figures, but it’s way down there. That’s not a massive
BD: We have a
indifference, I’m afraid.
[Laughs] That’s a lovely phrase. Sometimes, when I think of
that, I get kind of depressed and think that when you come down to it,
there’s probably enough music
right at this moment that has been written to last eternity. You
couldn’t go through it all, so then why write more
music? The answer is I have to. Other composers,
the ones that I’m visiting here at this convention, they have to write
it. And so they do. Some people pick it up and some
people ignore it. Of course when you see the amount of energy
from these young kids playing in bands and orchestras in this
then you start to feel good because there they are,
and there’s that quality rising every year. There were years that
I used to come to this convention and I’d have
this name tag on, and a conductor of a high school would say, “Oh,
you’re Ron Nelson. You wrote Rocky
Point Holiday. We have that every year. We put it
out on the stand, we
look at it, we close it. Some day we’ll be able to
play it.” [Both laugh] Over the years, more high schools
are tackling that piece, which happens to be a
hard piece. So the quality is rising, and that’s encouraging.
the technical quality of just getting
around the notes?
BD: Is the
musical quality of the students also
doing both — it’s going up and down
at the same time. There’s a movement afoot — for certain
composers, let’s say — to churn out grade I, II
and III music. These
are for beginning groups, and they have a kind of formula that they
employ to write pieces that are easy to play. Unfortunately, here
again they have nothing to say. I am
inspired by Mikrokosmos, the
Bartók piano pieces which are masterpieces of simplicity.
I believe that one can write good, easy
music, and personally I want to devote some time to doing
that. But what we’re hearing at some of the convention sessions
here are these churned-out pieces, these mechanical-formula pieces that
certain students in certain areas of the country are being exposed to,
and I’m sad to hear that because they don’t know what expressive
quality can be.
BD: Do they
notice the difference when they have a
Nelson piece on their stands?
[Laughs] If a Nelson piece is ever there. I only
have one piece that is easy. It’s a Grade IV piece, so it’s not a
matter of easy fingering.
BD: But when
they come to a
convention like this, they will hear a lot of these ordinary-type
pieces. They will also hear a piece by you, and perhaps another
piece or two that really have an innate sense of real form
and style. Do they tell the difference? Do they understand
RN: I think
so. They’re not just
running up to me, but they’re running up to other composers that are
here, too, wanting to talk or get an autograph. So yes, they’re
being inspired. I’m more
worried about the ones who don’t get a chance to come here, and that’s
most of them. The ones who
arrive here are the privileged ones because they get a real
education. It’s a wonderful experience.
kind of dancing around it, so let
me ask the real easy question. What’s the purpose of music?
Hmmm. I don’t know. I can’t give you a
nice answer. Entertainment pops into mind, because historically
music was an entertainment. Benjamin Britten said it’s music for
an occasion. Why not write music for an occasion? Bach
would have agreed. He happened to be in the service of God.
So there are many answers to it. I’m not going to say it is
that it enriches the soul or these other bromides. I just
can’t give you a nice answer to that.
you’re sitting at your desk and you have a piece of paper that you’re
to fill with notes, are you always controlling where those notes
go, or does the pencil sometimes lead your hand across the page?
RN: Sometimes the
pencil leads it. I try not to let it get
too vigorous because then you start to lose control of the
piece. I can’t speak for all composers, but I live for the
‘ah-ha’s?’ I love the ah-ha’s. They don’t happen all
that often, but when they happen, it’s wonderful. The ah-ha
generally has something to do with a turn in the piece that I hadn’t
been anticipating and I will think, “Oh, ah-ha! Wait’ll they hear
this.” It’s that kind of enthusiasm. One of the hardest
things, though, that maybe people
don’t always realize or understand is that it takes so long to write a
piece of music. If it’s a fast, energetic show piece, full of
drive and everything, you don’t feel that way every
morning — at least I don’t — when
you get up and continue the
piece. So a composer has to be something akin to an actor.
An actor may not feel this way or that way about the part for the
or the evening performance, nevertheless he or she’s got to go in and
do it. A composer has to throw him/herself into that mood of the
piece, no matter how he or she feels. More
than that, you have to crank it back to the beginning so that you have
the sense of form of beginning, middle, and end. I’ve often
thought how different that is for the painter. I
used to go into the studios of my painter friends back at Brown, and
they’d have Bach on the radio. I can’t listen to
anything. I can’t even listen to the morning news lest I hear a
and it throws me off. But there they are, working with some music
in the background often times, and the painting is there. When
they go home that day and come back, the painting is there in its
totality, and they can proceed with it. It isn’t a matter of
starting way back with the first brush stroke. Whereas in music,
you’ve got to go back to that first stroke of sound and continue with
its mood to let it unfold or whatever it happens to do.
BD: Are you
conscious when you’re
writing that it’s going to take time?
Yes. That’s what separates it from sculpture and painting, and
makes it akin to drama,
by the way.
BD: I assume
that there’s some
innate, dramatic quality to most of your works.
BD: Do you
know when you start out how long a piece will take to perform?
so, within thirty or forty seconds.
BD: Is that
something you decide, or is that
something you feel evolving?
RN: I think I
have an idea of how long this
piece should be. Sometimes, as you implied, the pen starts to
take over and it gets too long, and then you have to be severe with
it. Just like the editor of a film, some of the parts have to end
the floor and it has to be tightened up. That’s what I hear in
pieces that are done here, for example, and I heard several at this
convention. The composer needed an editor, or needed to be his
own editor. The piece got out of control, and it’s always kind of
sad when you can hear that. It’s just like a film that you
sometimes see gets out of control of the producer or the director.
BD: Is this
just a case of leaving out a chunk, or
should they rework it so that it is tighter?
Tighter. Tighter’s the word. It needs to be tightened
up. Everything has got to seem
inevitable, and if it doesn’t seem inevitable, then it should be cut.
BD: When you
your pieces, do you make them as tight as possible?
RN: Yes, and
I’m successful to varying degrees.
[Both laugh] I’m not the type of composer
who continually fools around with his piece and goes back.
I do have one piece out that got too long. I wasn’t severe; I cut
it, but I didn’t cut it enough. But it’s out there and I can’t go
back and fix it.
should leave a note on
the front page for the conductor that it should be cut a little bit.
happens to be a case where you can’t just
leave out the bars. I have to go around sometimes and conduct
these pieces, and I would like to say, “Well, okay, let’s take
these seventeen bars out.” I can’t do it in a way that makes them
connect. It should have been reworked. If a student had
brought the piece in, I would
have caught it. Why I didn’t catch it I don’t know, but it got
BD: Are you
too close to
your own music?
RN: One is
always very close to it, but you have
to develop the technique to stand back and be the observer.
BD: Are you
the ideal conductor of your
Sometimes; sometimes not. I’ve heard conductors make my music
better than I thought it
was and that’s, of course, a thrill. John Paynter, who is so
deeply connected with this, had that knack. Son of a gun, you
know, he did a couple of performances of my pieces! I couldn’t
believe that I wrote it the way he pulled them off! It’s a kind
genius. And then I have heard conductors ruin my pieces. I
once heard Dimitri Mitropoulos give a lecture. He
said, “A conductor cannot ruin a masterpiece,” and I thought to
myself, “Gee, I’ve heard you do it.” [Both laugh] Not that
my pieces are masterpieces, but
you can do it the right or the wrong way, and miss certain spots.
BD: I assume,
though, that there are several right
Yes. I don’t believe there’s a
definitive performance, but this is a matter of degree, how far you
miss the drama. So many conductors seem to make things rigid,
and my music really shouldn’t be rigid. It should breathe and
move and have a life.
BD: Put a
note in the score for the conductor to relax. [Both laugh]
sometimes put in rubato for
the tempo, but then that’s a license
for all sorts of things. So you have to be careful not to go too
it. You just hope that the conductor is sensitive and feels
— senses — what you are up to.
BD: So you
really put a lot of trust in your interpreters?
no. You have to realize that there’s
a complicity in this whole business. Those little notes that I
spend months and months putting down are nothing until a conductor and
the performers make it live. So we’re in this thing together.
BD: How much
do you expect the conductor and
the interpreter to put in?
RN: I don’t
expect them to put anything in. You can’t put things in unless
you start distorting
tempi. The notes are there. It’s just being
sensitive to the meaning of the music, whatever that happens to
be. It’s like missing the point of a story or missing the point
of a joke. Some sensitivity is lacking in certain
conductors, but, as I say, there’s the sense of complicity because
in this together. It isn’t like an artist who can do the
painting and it’s done for good. The only thing you can do with
it is light it poorly.
BD: Or hang
Yes. Music is a re-creative art,
just as drama is. But there’s not the license in music that there
is in drama, where an actor really can take it apart and make it
quite different, something quite special.
BD: Do you
ever wish that your music were like a
painting that could just be hung and lit well?
RN: This was
another one of
my terrible predictions. I predicted that electronic music would
be a very strong force in contemporary music, that it would be combined
with surround sound and it’s most wonderful venue would be the
home. I predicted that you could have sounds sculpting in your
home, so that
the sound traveled across the room and so on.
BD: Would it
all be done in the package, or would each listener have a
hand in it?
way. Because it’s on tape,
it would more or less be fixed; frozen. [Laughs] I was dead
BD: I think
it’s something that has not yet
really come to fore. The possibilities are still there.
RN: They are,
I guess. I thought that Karlheinz
Stockhausen would do it. If anyone could do it, he would be the
one, but it didn’t happen. Mort Subotnick is another one who did
lot of interesting things. It’s just the public didn’t want
it. It got taken over by the movies, just
as films took over that whole style of Rachmaninoff and the
Romantic. For a long time it was the domain of the film industry.
BD: You get a
lot of commissions. How do
you decide yes or no?
people say I should learn to say no.
[Both laugh] I came here with the resolve to give myself a
sabbatical from commissions, to stand back and write what I want when
I want it. But one of the conductors came up to me this
afternoon and said that one of the children in her band was playing on
a swing, and the swing caught him around the neck and strangled
him. This thirteen year-old boy died. He was a horn player
band, and they want to memorialize this young person. Would I
write the piece? I couldn’t say no, so that’s what I’m going
to start when I get home.
BD: Does that
tug at you too much, to write a piece
that is memorializing someone rather than glorifying the human spirit,
or is that really wrapped into one?
RN: No, I can
relate to loss. I lost my wife, you
know. Everybody suffers tragedies in their lives, and I feel an
empathy. Anyway, it struck a resonant
chord. I want to do it, and I will do it.
BD: What if
someone comes up to you
and says, “I want a string quartet”?
RN: I would
say, “There are a million ways in the
world to waste time, and you’ve given me one million one.”
[Laughs] Don’t like the string quartet, huh?
BD: I thought
with your desire to work with the
orchestra, you could at least get the string section out
RN: I don’t
have a knack for that. I admire people who do. Those
quartets, oh my! They are something else! I don’t know how
I’d come anywhere near that
expression. There’s an Australian composer named Peter
Sculthorpe. He wrote a quartet for the Kronos that is
brilliant. Marvelous piece! [See my Interview with Peter
Sculthorpe.] If I don’t have better
ideas than that, I’m going to shut up! [Both laugh] As I
said, if you don’t have anything to say,
BD: Does it
always have to be a better idea, or
just a great idea?
RN: It has to
have something. Better? Let’s put it this way — it
would be a shadow on my
shoulder if I couldn’t do something that was at least in that league,
to have something to say in that medium. My background was for
large-scale, coloristic expressions. This was right from the
beginning. I just was not good at chamber music.
advice do you have for conductors of bands,
or perhaps orchestras, these days?
RN: Oh, I’m not one
to give advice to
conductors. I don’t hang my shingle out as a conductor, though I
do a lot of it. I love it.
BD: As the
composer, don’t you want to either
shake them by the lapels or pat them on the back?
RN: You get a
little bit of both. But as
I say, we’re back to the complicity thing. You can’t pick and
choose your conductors and say, “Oh no, you’re an insensitive
one. You can’t play my music.” That’s not the way it
works. The only requirement is to read the score! Think what I
was after and relay that to your
students. In this field we’re always teaching, and the
greatest compliment a conductor can give to me is to say, “That’s a
good teaching piece.” Hearing that, I’ll say, “Oh boy! You’re my
friend for life,” because that’s what I want. I want to be able
to help those students through my music,
through what I say, to take them to another level — hopefully
about the audiences? Are you trying to
teach the audience also?
Mmmm. I don’t know. I don’t have much
control on that. There are so many different types of
audiences. In my field, I run into many. A lot of the
service bands do
my work, and they’re under certain restrictions because they’re
controlled by the government. It’s our tax money at work.
They get a lot of mom-and-pop audiences, and
they have to please those audiences. So they’re very conservative
in their programming, and there’s not much I can do about that.
you’re a tonalist. I would think they
would welcome that.
written some pretty far-out
pieces. In Holidays and
Epiphanies, the last one kind of strains the ear. But
there’s a sense of resolution to it which is maybe another facet I
might mention. I’m not averse to using dissonance, but I think
I owe it to the audience, really literally, to give resolution to what
I present. It’s just not enough for me just to be relentlessly
dissonant. I once heard a critique — I
think it was Xenakis who had written a string quartet — and
critique after the concert somebody said, “Well, sir, why did you end
the piece there?” He said, “It was as
good a place as any.” [Both laugh] [See my Interview with Iannis
Xenakis.] It just was dissonant and
he quit. There was no sense of resolution, or reason why this
dissonance wasn’t leading to some sort of
resolution. I think audiences will forgive you anything if
you’ll take them into your heart and your soul, and give resolution to
whatever your conflict might be. I may be
wrong, but that’s my personal opinion.
BD: That is
how you write your music, so that’s fine.
BD: Perhaps a
dangerous question — are you
pleased with where you are at this point in your career?
complaints. It can always be
better. It could be a lot worse! No, I have no
complaints. In fact, I’m rather pleased with this pendulum we
talked about earlier, swinging toward tonality and that whole era
of composers who were outside the ring for so long. It’s a good
time to write, and it’s a good time for young persons to write, too,
because there is no orthodoxy. That’s the trick.
Twelve-tone isn’t the way to go, and aleatoric music is not the way to
go. All styles are open and that’s a nice. That’s a nice
the real definition of being a Liberal Art.
BD: Thank you
for coming back to
thank you for all the music!
RN: You honor
me. Thank you.
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© 1997 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at the Hilton Hotel in
Chicago on December 19, 1997. It
was used (along with recordings) on WNIB later that month, and again in
1999. It was transcribed and posted on this
website in 2012.
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.