Composer  Ned  Rorem
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

rorem Composer Ned Rorem is one of the few visionaries who stuck to his guns (so to speak) and wrote tonal music throughout the turbulent period of the second half of the Twentieth Century.  Besides all the sound ideas (pun intended), he also penned volumes of prose observations about all aspects of his life and surroundings.  Originally diaries, this stream of thought poked and prodded, enlightened and angered readers who may or may not have even heard his music.  Taken together, the output of this creator and observer makes for a fascinating look at his imagination.

A full biography of Ned Rorem (courtesy of his publisher) appears at the bottom of this webpage.

Rorem was in Chicago for performances and pre-concert conversations of An American Oratorio with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  [See photo at right, and also my Interview with Margaret Hillis.]  On the afternoon of the first performance, we met in what was lovingly called Solti
s Studio on the sixth floor of Orchestra Hall.  The composer was very relaxed and spoke easily and openly about various topics. 

As we were setting up for the conversation, our chit-chat was about our mutual alma mater, Northwestern University . . . . .

Ned Rorem:    I was at the inauguration of Lutkin Hall [the small recital hall next to the School of Music building].  George Howerton [Dean of the Northwestern University School of Music 1951-71, having joined the faculty as Director of Choral Activities in 1939] conducted the three Ravel Chansons, which I’d never heard and I’ve never gotten over.  Beautiful, beautiful a capella pieces, a copy of which I then stole from the Northwestern Library because they had just come to America, and which I still have.  I wrote about it in a book, and the book was published.  Ten years later Howerton wrote me a letter and said, “We would like that music back, please.”

Bruce Duffie:    [Laughs]  An overdue notice!

NR:    By twenty-five years.

BD:    [With a fake scowl and a gentle nudge]  Bring it with you next time you come back!

NR:    God knows when I’ll come back.  I hate to travel.

BD:    Do you really?

NR:    [Nodding]  Mm.  I came to Chicago partly because I’m a Chicagoan, so it’s as much for sentimental reasons as for artistic satisfaction.

BD:    So if it weren’t Chicago, you would just let your piece go out?

NR:    The same piece [An American Oratorio], for example, was played two weeks ago in Cleveland and I didn’t go.  A much newer piece called A String Symphony that Robert Shaw does divinely, he’s taking to Paris
which is another one of my home townsand I’m not going to go there next month partly because I hate to travel.  I always think I’m going to die on the hotel floor and bleed to death.  At least a maid would find me.  There’s an anxiety I have about being away from home.

BD:    Does that anxiety manifest itself at all in your music, or is this completely separate?

NR:    That’s not for me to know; I don’t know what is manifest in music.  I know what’s manifest in prose, but I never have known what music means.

BD:    Do you at least attend the premieres of your works?

NR:    Yes, if they’re big pieces.  I’m always terribly curious, naturally, to hear what the thing that I’ve been working on for a year — or for a long time — is going to sound like.

BD:    Are you ever surprised?

NR:    No, because now I’m old enough now to pretty much know what I’m doing in a technical way.  If a piece is for a bunch of vocalists, there could be more surprises than for instrumentalists, because there’s a bigger difference, by nature, between one singer and another, or one group of singers and another, or the sex of one singer or another.  There’s a bigger difference between a man singing a song and a woman singing a song, than between two oboists playing the same piece.  You can’t tell their sex with your eyes closed, theoretically.  Also, I know pretty much what I’m writing for with a commissioned piece beforehand.  There are surprises.  Occasionally something sounds better than I had bargained for, and usually worse.  Never does it ever hit the nail on the head because there’s no such thing as the ideal in this world, except inside one’s brain.

BD:    Do performers and conductors find things in your scores that you didn’t even know were there?

NR:    Yes, by definition because there is no one right way to play a piece, and certainly not the composer’s own way.  There are as many right ways as there are legitimate performers.  The notation of music is an extremely inexact craft, as opposed to the painting of a picture.  The finished picture is there, and obviously any pair of eyes that center in on a picture will have their own concept of what that picture is.  I’ll never know what you see when you look at the sky out of the window, or if your blue is my blue, but at least it’s the same sky we’re looking at.

rorem BD:    Is this what leads you to write some prose, because it’s there and not a re-creative thing?

NR:    The writing of prose fulfills a very different need in me than music does.  I don’t know quite what those needs are, but my two vocations have always overlapped to some extent.  By the time I was published as prose writer
which was just about twenty years or so agoI had already been a performed composer for twenty years.  My music I had always thought of as elegant and pristine and well-tailored and circumspect — French, if you will — and the prose was snotty and mean and bloody and wild and without discipline.  A diary is always, by definition, an open-ended thing anyway, and as soon as I realized total strangers are going to read my prose, I completely changedlike Jekyll and Hydeand became much more responsible in my prose writing.

BD:    So they’re no longer real diaries?

NR:    No.  These days I write a great deal of what — I guess you would call it
on the aesthetics of art without even using the personal pronoun I; or I write at length about other composers, generally composers that I like.  But then as my prose became more and more cautious and well-planned, my music, I hope, became uglier, and the two arts, or modes of expression, crossed each other like two amoebas that merge and then go off in different directions, or two Neds that enter the same mirror but from opposite sides, and then look at each other from a great distance.

BD:    Will they cross their paths and then change yet again?

NR:    Yes, but the Ned that writes music is not the Ned that writes prose, which is why I can’t ever set my own words to music.

BD:    Let’s talk about the human voice.  What is it that is so difficult about writing music for the human voice, that you, almost uniquely among living composers, have found so special for your creative energies?

NR:    I never said it was difficult, and I’m always astounded when other composers say it’s so difficult.  In fact, it’s come so easy to me that I feel slightly guilty about it; I feel I’m cheating
— after all, the poem exists there already.  All I’m doing is divesting it of a little bit of flesh, and taking the bones and putting on some new clothes.  Walter Piston used to tell his students when they’d bring him a song, “I am incapable of making any kind of criticism on that.  It’s a foreign language to me.”  But someone like William Schuman — who was here a week or two ago and who is thirteen years older than mehas never really written for the human voice.  The other day he called me up.  I don’t know him all that well.  He said, “Well now, what is the most comfortable tessitura for a baritone, because here I’m writing this great big piece for baritone, and I don’t know quite what to do.”

BD:    [Laughs]  Oh, my!

NR:    So I very nicely told him.  One never becomes a master of one’s craft, ever.  Even if there were five hundred years, instead of fifty to write in, there are always questions to be asked.  It’s not easy, but songs are not difficult for me.  What’s difficult for me are more abstract musical forms where I’m not guided by a pre-set form that another artist has already made — in other words, a poem.  If I have to write a symphony, I am forced to imagine some sort of literary or visual format on which to garb my notes.

BD:    Does it then become program music?

NR:    Only if I say so.  If I write a symphony, I’m writing a symphony.  If I write another piece that’s just like a symphony, I might call each of the movements by a title, as I have in the past.  I wrote a piece in eight movements called Sunday Morning, based on eight sections, or eight stanzas, of a Wallace Stevens poem of the same name.  I took little extracts from each of those stanzas and titled the subdivisions of my piece with those extracts, so that listeners are inclined to hear the titles.  People hear what they’re told; precisely because music doesn’t mean anything literarily, people hear what you tell them to hear.

BD:    Is this a mistake?

NR:    There’s no such thing as a mistake, because that’s a moral judgment and music has nothing to do with morality.  That’s why composers are such bad boys most of the time, and some of them are bad girls, too.  [Both laugh]  If you took La Mer of Debussy and told a listener who had never heard of it, “This represents three times of day in the city of Paris
the morning in the slaughter houses, noon at the market, and evening at the cafés of Montmartre,” your listener will hear that forevermore, and he will never hear the sea.

BD:    I would think that he would then come away from it perhaps more confused by thinking it’s a poorer piece of music because it didn’t jibe with what, perhaps, Debussy was thinking when he wrote it.

NR:    Debussy is not the first person to write so-called programmatic music who attached the titles after the pieces were written.

BD:    But the titles don’t come from what he feels as he’s writing?

NR:    Not necessarily.  He himself said that many of the preludes
all of which have very, very evocative titles like Moonlight on the Forgotten Temple, or The Girl With the Flaxen Hair and so on — he would play the piece to a friend and say, “What shall I call this?”  And the friend would say, “Call it Moonlight on the Forgotten Temple.”  So all of that is part of a game, and the basic business of writing musicunless it is vocal music, which is already a bastard form or a compromise of some sortis a... [pauses] I was going to say intellectual process, but that’s not quite the word.   It’s a non-verbal process, which is why nobody can explain in words.  If I could explain in words what my music meant, I would have no need to write the music.


BD:    Is writing music fun?

NR:    Yes.  It can become less fun as one grows older.  How can I put it genteel-ly?  [Ponders a moment]  When I was a child in Chicago, I would get up from the dinner table and rush to the piano because it was more fun for me to go and improvise music than it was to eat
and I love to eat!  Or, as an infant, I’d go to the bathroom, and I’d come rushing out of the bathroom without pulling up my pants, because I would want to get to the piano.  So I’d run around with my pants hanging around my feet.  That’s fun.  It’s more than fun; it’s infinitely satisfying.  I think any composer would concur that in spite of the fact that artists sometimes wrongly have the reputation for being disequilibriated, eccentric, and abnormal, in the long run they are the most well-balanced of people.  When you are writing music, or doing anything creative — this doesn’t just go for me or anybody good; it can go for children in therapy classes making clay pottery — your mind is not so much on your own body, feeling sorry for yourself, or on the one hand thinking about sex or on the other hand thinking about food or on the third hand thinking about pains in your leg or headaches.  You are outside of time and space during the moment that you’re writing music, so that when people talk about inspired writing — which is what laymen love to hear about — a so-called inspiration comes in a flash and lasts for about a flash.  That flash illuminates some truth or other, which you spend the next year trying to recapture in notes or verbs or oils.  You remember it, you reconstruct it, but the flash can’t last.  If it lasted, you would be a psychopathic maniac, but I don’t think that anybody has more than four or five of those flashes in their whole life. 

BD:    Have you had your quota yet?

NR:    I don’t know.  How can I know?  Maybe.  Certainly, if I die before this interview is over, I will have had my quota.  One can never know.  I don’t see any more great illuminations coming along.  I wish there were, but if you are an accomplished and professional artist, you try to make that flash a communicable thing between you and an audience, whatever that may be.

BD:    Is that a part of being an artist, that you can recognize the flashes when they come?

NR:    Yeah.  Everybody has flashes.  I don’t mean hot flashes, necessarily.  Everyone has moments of illumination, and everybody is inspired.  There are many people who are just as inspired as artists, and those same people can be even a good deal more intelligent than certain great artists, but the artist is like anybody else, only more so.  Or, put another way, he is like anybody else, but nobody else is like him.  He is able to take these truths
which can be small truths or big ones, but they’re nevertheless truthsand make other people see their truth in his truth.  That’s the only way we can appreciate a work of art.  It’s like saying, “Yes, I recognize something of myself in this.”  I was at the Art Institute earlier today, and I passed a lot of pictures that I’ve known for many, many years, which are masterpieces, but sort of left me cold because I didn’t feel like looking at them.  I can choose the time I take to look at a picture, but I can’t with a piece of music.  You can look away from the picture; you can’t listen away from a piece of music.  You’re stuck with it until it’s over. 

BD:    And you need to listen now, not ten minutes or two days from now.

NR:    You don’t have to concentrate on it, which most people don’t, including me.

BD:    What do you expect of an audience that comes to hear your music?

NR:    People talk about an audience, and there are as many audiences as there are different agglomerations of people sitting formally together.  People say, “What about the audience and your music?” as though there was the audience.  If I have an audience
or something I can call an audiencemy audience isn’t necessarily the same as Elliott Carter’s, but our combined audiences are likely to overlap more than our audience together with, say, the audience of John Denver or even Philip Glass.  And yet the audience of Philip Glass, Ned Rorem, Elliott Carter and John Denver are more likely to overlap than the audience of the Yankee baseball teamif, in fact, the Yankees are a baseball team.  [Both laugh]  The audience for the Metropolitan Opera is not the same as for the City Opera in New York, to speak only of the city in which I live.  Then again, at the Met itself, the audience for Berg’s Lulu is not the same that goes to hear Tosca, which is not the same that goes to hear Mozart, and all three of those audiences seldom go to chamber music concerts of Beethoven, let alone of contemporary American music.

BD:    Music comes in and out of fashion.  Is the public right in what it dictates?

NR:    It also has to do with the country.  France, for example, is run intellectually by Boulez’s mafia at IRCAM, and if you don’t like that you’re in tough luck because no other music is taken seriously.  France is a country that’s far more intellectual; they like to talk about music rather than to hear it, so audiences between countries don’t overlap.  I don’t know what I expect from an audience, and I don’t know what the audience is.  As to who I write for, I write for the people — knock wood — that commission the works, and I’m in the happy state for the moment of writing only what is commissioned.  I believe in commissions.  I believe that artists should be able to live today as they could up until about a hundred years ago, off the just rewards of their labor.  But you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of composers in America that can do that without having to teach or lecture or this or that.

BD:    Are there too many composers now and too many young composers coming along?

NR:    Well again, what do you mean by composer?  The weird, weird state of affairs today is that in America, and by extension the world, contemporary music has no identity in the public ken the way it did even twenty-five years ago.  By contemporary music, you know what I mean and I know what I mean, so let’s not go into it.  I don’t mean Bruce Springsteen.

BD:    Are there too many divergent styles today?

rorem NR:    Yeah, let’s not waste our time talking about the difference between contemporary classical and contemporary pop, even though John Rockwell would love to do so.  Of serious, so-called contemporary classical
and all three of those terms are incorrect — the average, or rather cultured American doesn’t know what the hell we’re talking about when we talk about music.  When you’re talking about song, if they’re smart they think you’re talking about Stephen Sondheim, and if they’re less cultured they think you’re talking about Bruce Springsteen, but certainly not me, let alone any of my friends who write songs.  Nor are they thinking about opera composers who are writing operas today, because opera composers are, by definition, dead, and have been dead for a hundred years or so.

BD:    Is that why you don’t write particularly many operas?

NR:    No, because within the small, lunatic fringe that does know what music is, I’m a part of that society and I’m nourished by it, but it’s a very, very small thing.  I’m trying to get around to answering your question ‘are there too many composers?’  No.  Things are getting worse in the state of affairs that I just discussed because the confusion between pop and classical is no longer confusion.  Classical just doesn’t exist any longer, and the whole world is taken over by Philistines.  Contradictorily, or paradoxically, at the same time there are more young, good composers with bright ideas than there ever have been before, and I say this as a sometime judge of, for example, ASCAP contests for composers under thirty, or BMI contests, or dispensing prizes on this and that.  What they’re going to do I wouldn’t know because no publisher is interested in their music, because everything has to do with money now.  No performers are interested in their music because performers and composers for the past hundred years have faced in very different directions
ever since the composer is no longer his own performer.  Managers couldn’t care less because everything has to do with money.  I’m sure I’ll be talking about this tonight with Mr. Fogel, [Manager of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra] whom I’ve yet to meet, but I’m told that he is very money-conscious, too, and I’ll try to set him straight!  [Much laughter]  And yet, here are all these young composers.  My advice to them is open your own publishing company, open your own recording studios by hook or by crook, and don’t think in terms of the audience, think in terms of your audience.  People always say, “Why do you write what you’re writing?  You should write a musical comedy and make some money,” as though money was a goal.  If money were the goal or if acclaim by the masses were the goal, I would have long since been out of the music racket.  I am doing what I want to do and I am appreciated by a certain dignified few, and if I weren’t, I would be unhappy.  But I am.

BD:    Managers like Henry Fogel are always talking about expanding the audience.  Do you not want the audience expanded?

NR:    I don’t believe in the expansion of the audience.  I don’t think it can be done.  You can educate only so far, but I have seen it to be true that a very small percent of any civilization any time gives a damn anyway.  I can’t prove it, but the average concert is generally pretty average in the sense that it’s just a Beethoven symphony, a Mozart concerto, and an overture by somebody
with nothing of the present daywhich completely contradicts all concerts at all times except the present.  We only live in the past; we are soaked in the past.  Therefore, I have no reason for being in the mentality of a man — I won’t say Mr. Fogel since I don’t know him — but managers by definition aren’t really interested in live music.  And this goes also for radio stations, except perhaps yours.  Two of the three good New York stations, namely WNCN and WQXR, just in the past year have been told to watch their P’s and Q’s and not play so much Ravel, please, because the audiences don’t want that.  The head big shots at these stations would really like it to be pop music, but they settle for Vivaldi, and certainly not for me.  So there’s only WNYC and that’s very, very depressing.  These managers are going on the principle that they have to meet the greatest number, and respond to the demand of the greatest number, but the greatest number will take what they get.  I know that’s true, and if singers will sing and talk to their audiences in the audience’s native tongue, and say, “Look, you’re Americans; this is American music.  This is music in your language.  Don’t be so uptight about it,” that’s the way to get an audience, even though it’s always going to be small.

BD:    Just touching on the idea of rock music, though, it seems like the classical audience that we’re talking about only wants old stuff but the rock audience only wants new things.

NR:    Yes, but what they term
new does not include me or my colleagues, or Berio, or Elliott Carter, or even, to some extent, Philip Glass, although he’s extremely popular.

BD:    If they asked you, would you condescend to be on Saturday Night Live, as Philip Glass did?

NR:    I would be on Saturday Night Live on my own terms.  I went on Dick Cavett’s show, and I did it on the specific stipulation that the show would give me a double show, meaning two hours worth.  And I said I want to begin it with about ten minutes of my own music, so that the audience will know what they’re in for.  Dick Cavett himself didn’t want to, or he wanted to put the music in the middle so as not to lose the audience.  They adored me and they asked me back.  I came back, again on the stipulation that this time I could have Sharon Robinson, who admittedly is very good-looking, sexist that I am.  I used that partly, but she played a very dense piece for solo cello.  I haven’t seen Saturday Night Live enough to know quite what the tone of it is, but if I did it, I would not in any way condescend.  I wouldn’t try to be something that I’m not.  In other words, I wouldn’t try to be cute or funny
not that I’m not cute or funny — but I would talk exactly as I’m talking to you, and I would also try to play some of my music.  I might size the audience up, but I wouldn’t go on the Johnny Carson Show, and he wouldn’t be interested in having me either because of the kind of pap they talk about.  I saw him just the other night with Candice Bergen, and I’ve always thought of her as an intelligent actress.  They talked about recipes and how often they change the cat’s box.  Here are two grown up, intelligent people, and it’s just mindless pap.  They don’t make waves.

BD:    Let me ask one of my favorite questions
— is music art or is music entertainment?

NR:    Well, the third question is, “Is art entertainment?”

BD:    OK.  Is art entertainment?

NR:    Answer the question yourself.  I’m not the one that makes these definitions.  I’m not sentimental about the word art, and I’m not uppity about entertainment.  I would say that there is a difference in kind between so-called art and so-called entertainment, but I’m not quite sure what the difference is.  I once said that art is something that you’ve got to work at and that entertainment isn’t.  You can let entertainment just roll off of you, and you can’t with art, but that doesn’t really hold.  Ravel, to get back to him, is to me a great artist in every way, but I can let it roll off of me in the most sensual manner, in exactly the way I’ll let Billie Holiday’s songs, or Ella Fitzgerald’s songs at their best, roll off of me.  I think that Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald at their best are... [pauses] I was going to say the equals of it, but let me not put it that way.  Let me say they are in the same class with Ravel, but I do not put any rock and roll in that class.  Just twenty years ago I wrote a long essay on the Beatles for the New York Review of Book — and I don’t take a word of it back — in which I compared the melodies of the Beatles at their best to the melodies of Monteverdi and Schumann.  I thought it was in the same class.  I still think so, but I think that they were a fluke.  I thought they were a fluke, a one-time thing; they haven’t begun to be equaled.  They were more than simply an invention by showbiz, and every other group without exception is an invention by showbiz.  God knows, here in Chicago I was raised on pop music and I loved it.  I went to dances and my whole body reacted to it!  So I’m not just being snobbish, as somebody who doesn’t know anything about it.  My objection is that it’s preemptive.  (A)
it’s preemptive when it’s on, and you can’t get away from it in elevators or supermarkets, and (B) nothing happens in it.  Generally in entertainment nothing happens.   Nothing happens in that music.  It does not go, even, from A to B.  It stays in the same tonic dominant, sometimes subdominant, hypnotic thing, over and over again.  The words, when they are comprehensible, are simplistic.

BD:    What do you say, then, when someone comes up to you and says, “Your music doesn’t go anywhere.  Nothing happens in your music.”

NR:    Except that something does and that’s demonstrable.  What happens may not be worth it, but something does happen.  What doesn’t happen in Philip Glass’s music may be worth it — although I don’t happen to dig it — and Philip Glass certainly takes himself very seriously.  On the whole, most rock fanatics, though, are not in a position to say nothing happens in my music, and if they are, I will listen to them because it means they’ve made some effort to hear my music.  On the whole, they don’t even know who Beethoven is much less me, and they certainly haven’t listened to Beethoven.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve done quite a bit of teaching of composition.

NR:    I’ve done a little bit.

BD:    Well, is musical composition something that can be taught, or must it be something that is just inbred in each composer?

rorem NR:    All teaching is hype, so I do it partly for the money.   Three-fourths for the money, and one fourth because I’m fairly good at the mysterious process of what it is.  You can really teach anything in the world in the performing arts except the making of it, because I can make anybody, any beginner, into a fairly decent pianist with a little bit of technique.  They might not play with what used to be called ‘feeling,’ but they can get the right notes.  But with composing you can’t start from scratch.  You have to take the person who is presented as a composer and he has to have written something so you can tell him what’s wrong with it.  You’d be amazed at the number of famous performers
a Horowitz or a Rubenstein or a Joan Sutherland, who deal with music all their lifewho, if you said to them, “Write me a piece for tomorrow,” would become panic stricken.  They don’t know even how to begin writing a piece.  Partly that has to do with basic education, because we all know how to read and write, and paint pictures in nursery school.  We write poems, we rhyme cat with rat; we paint pictures, make mud pies.  They might be lousy mud pies and lousy poems, but at least we do them.  But the basics of musical educationwhat does a note mean on paper, on a staffis not taught to beginners.  If it were, music would be less mysterious.  Although, I must hasten to add, it is still mysterious to me.  I still don’t know what it means, and I still don’t know what in it can move me or anybody else to tears.  Nobody knows — nobody — and I’m not a fool, and neither is Susan Langer, who spent her life writing on the philosophy of music.  I do know, though, what in music will move me in a very cold, medicinal way.  I can be extremely moved by a major seventh, or secondary seventh chords, and by sequences in Bach and in Ravel.  I can be left utterly cold by dominant sevenths.  Speaking in terms strictly of harmony, what moves me is the acrid sharpness of a minor second or a major seventh, or minor ninth that then resolves.  The resolution to me is heartbreaking.  I hear a lot of Bach, which has a great deal of that kind of resolution, exactly as I hear Ravel or Poulenc, which also has those chords, and yet Bach never knew who Poulenc and Ravel were.  I hear the music very similarly.  I’ve talked to Rosalind Turek, for example, who plays more Bach keyboard music than anybody else, and she doesn’t know what I’m talking about because she doesn’t know the contemporary allusions that I’m making.  I’ve talked to David Del Tredici about this because he used in one of his pieces the same Bach chorale that Alban Berg used in the violin concerto.  Do you know that Chorale prelude?  It’s called Est ist Genug, and it has a blue note it in it.  I said, “David, I’ve always dug that blue note,” and he said, “That’s not a blue note.  That’s a modulation.  That’s not a lowered seventh, it’s a modulation into the subdominant.”  So in the key of C, he was hearing the B flat as already being in F and therefore much more normally than I, who was hearing it as a blue note in C.  But beyond that, just as I can’t know if your blue is my blue, I can’t know if my blue note is your dominant seventh.

BD:    So you were lingering on what was there, and he was already into what the next chord was.

NR:    Yeah, but what I say to Rosalind Turek, “Stop for a moment and just hold onto that chord,” I’ll hear it vertically and she’s hearing it horizontally.

BD:    Are you were pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music.

rorem NR:    Not that I have that many, but if I’m involved in the recording I can be terribly pleased when there’s a playback.  I’ll say, “Oh, my God, isn’t it wonderful?  We’ve got this down for immortality.”  Then when the record comes out, I never listen to it again.  It always upsets me and it’s never right.  Performances are never right.  I think the songs of mine that Donald Gramm has sung are absolutely flawless on records, and I’m very glad that Donald, who recorded so very little, did them.  [Vis-à-vis the photo at right, see my Interview with Donald Gramm, and my Interview with Phyllis Curtin.]  I don’t really like records of anybody’s music, and that goes for mine, but yeah, I’m pleased with a lot of recordings.

BD:    Is it a mistake for the public to have become so enamored with the round, flat, groovy discs?

NR:    I don’t know.  I am, and I certainly think that much of my education came from that.  However, things change.  We progress.  Progress isn’t always good.  It can be negative, like a cancer, but you can’t turn back the clock.  We are in an age of discs.  I go to many less concerts than I used to, but I also listen to many less records, unless it’s in the line of duty.

BD:    You’re more selective, then?

NR:    I’m a lot more selective, I suppose.  I’m all for people listening to records, though.  I’m touched when friends of mine listen to records of whatever it is, because it means they like music.  Most of them don’t listen mindlessly with just the oompah-pah of pop, but they listen carefully.

BD:    Do you don’t feel the records are creating a lack of attention that carries into the concert hall?

NR:    It does carry at a concert hall, and they’re inclined to listen in the concert — or at least theater goers are certainly inclined to look at a play or even a movie the way they look at a TV sitcom.  Audiences are very verbal now, if you go to the theater, and any audience who goes to a concert of serious music is usually pretty... I don’t know.  [Pauses again]  I was going to say ‘is there because they want to be,’ but then again, I don’t know.  I don’t go to Friday afternoon concerts with audiences that have subscription people who are asleep half the time.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music, or is it not something that is going to survive the twentieth century?

NR:    That’s a question that never would have been asked except in the twentieth century.  In previous centuries, music served a purpose
at church or for tilling the soil or for this and that or for the court.  So nobody would say, “Where is music going?”  People ask where music is going because they are anxious about where music is, which indicates an anxiety about virtually everything in our century, but it’s also indicative of the arts.  The arts, therefore, are not a stabilizer.  They have been in the past.  There is no reason that I, as a composer, should know the answer to that question any more than anybody else.  I don’t think about the future.  I think about myself.  I am interested in my own posterity, and I’m always surprised when friends of mine, intelligent people and even artists, say they don’t care.  They just want to do their work and let it go.  They don’t care that once they’re dead they’re forgotten, but I do.  You asked a question before we started recording about why are we on Earth.  What is the reason for living?  The reason for living, the reason for life, the reason to be alive is to ask the question of why are we alive, because it’s the only question that makes any difference.

BD:    Is there any answer to it?

NR:    The answer is to continue asking the question.  There will never be an answer.  I think if we had an answer, it would be to us, as rational human beings, very disappointing.  There is no reason, but we have evolved over the past, very recent, four thousand years, to accompany ourselves with a sense of our own importance that is probably not there.

BD:    Are intelligent people such as you, and perhaps me, asking too much of life?

NR:    No, because we are humans.  To be anything else would be to be another kind of mammal, and I think that all animals are as important as we are.  I really do.  I also think that they’ve got the answer more than we do.  In the first piece I ever wrote for chorus and orchestra
which Margaret Hillis, incidentally, did thirty years ago in New Yorkone of the last movements is from an extract of André Gide, in which he talks about the deer and the hare being pursued and taking joy in their feints and leaps and bounds, even as they are jumping across the fields.  Only man looks toward the future; animals don’t.  They don’t look toward the past, and although they can suffer, they don’t pity themselves once the suffering is over.  It is indigenous of us to have invented this kind of suffering, and it’s part of being a man not to be able to answer.  We’ve invented the notion of God and an afterlife, and of art to keep us above wateralthough most people couldn’t care less as they whirl us headlong into obliteration.  This is Ronald Reagan’s answer.  He wants to blow up the world, and that’s far, far more important than any work of art in the back of his mind, and almost in the front of his mind.  I think it’s partly a masculine thing, although it’s very possible if a woman were in high place, she too would.  I think it’s demonstrable that women in high place are as blood thirsty as men.  I’m not optimistic, no.  But art has not stopped. 

BD:    Thank you for being a composer!

NR:    [Laughs]  You mean for persisting in this madness?  I’ll tell you one thing, I wouldn’t persist if I didn’t have some sort of appreciation.  I do it now because I have to make a living at it, but I am very insecure and very vulnerable.  If I don’t have the sense of being appreciated by doing, for example, a little discussion like this nearly every day of my life, I would throw in the sponge.  I haven’t done it yet.

BD:    Maybe you should travel more and get more applause?

NR:    But the more applause I get, the more travel I do, the less composition I can do to get applauded for, so I have to make a concession.  [Takes a deep breath and sits back in his chair]  It was a pleasure to be here.

Words and music are inextricably linked for Ned Rorem. Time Magazine has called him "the world's best composer of art songs," yet his musical and literary ventures extend far beyond this specialized field. Rorem has composed three symphonies, four piano concertos and an array of other orchestral works, music for numerous combinations of chamber forces, ten operas, choral works of every description, ballets and other music for the theater, and literally hundreds of songs and cycles. He is the author of sixteen books, including five volumes of diaries and collections of lectures and criticism.

Ned Rorem is one of America's most honored composers. In addition to a Pulitzer Prize, awarded in 1976 for his suite Air Music, Rorem has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship (1951), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1957), and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1968). He is a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award; in 1998 he was chosen Composer of the Year by Musical America. The Atlanta Symphony recording of the String Symphony, Sunday Morning, and Eagles received a Grammy Award for Outstanding Orchestral Recording in 1989. From 2000 to 2003 he served as President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2003 he received ASCAP's Lifetime Achievement Award, and in January 2004 the French government named him Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Among his many commissions for new works are those from the Ford Foundation (for Poems of Love and the Rain, 1962), the Lincoln Center Foundation (for Sun, 1965); the Koussevitzky Foundation (for Letters from Paris, 1966); the Atlanta Symphony (String Symphony, 1985); the Chicago Symphony (Goodbye My Fancy, 1990); Carnegie Hall (Spring Music, 1991), and the New York Philharmonic (Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra, 1993). Among the distinguished conductors who have performed his music are Bernstein, Masur, Mehta, Mitropoulos, Ormandy, Previn, Reiner, Slatkin, Steinberg, and Stokowski.

Rorem is justly renowned for his art songs; his catalog includes more than 500 works in the medium. Evidence of Things Not Seen, his evening-length song cycle for four singers and piano, represents his magnum opus in the genre. The New York Festival of Song premiered the cycle at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in January 1998. New York magazine called Evidence of Things Not Seen "one of the musically richest, most exquisitely fashioned, most voice-friendly collections of songs I have ever heard by any American composer;" Chamber Music magazine deemed it "a masterpiece."

Rorem's most recent opera, Our Town, which he completed with librettist Sandy McClatchy, is a setting of the acclaimed Thorton Wilder play of the same name. It premiered at the Indiana University Jacob's School of Music in February 2007 and has enjoyed subsequent performances with the Lake George Opera and Aspen Music Theater Center, with future performances scheduled at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Opera Boston, and Festival Opera in Walnut Creek, CA.

October 23, 2003 marked the composer's 80th birthday, highlighting a season of international festivities. Chief among them was the Curtis Institute of Music's "Roremania," a two-week celebration encompassing works in every genre. The birthday season brought a trio of new concertos from Rorem: Cello Concerto, commissioned by the Residentie Orchestra and the Kansas City Orchestra for David Geringas; Flute Concerto, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra for its principal flutist Jeffrey Khaner; and Mallet Concerto, commissioned for Evelyn Glennie by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Eos Orchestra.

His most recent publication, Facing the Night: A Diary (1999-2005) and Musical Writings, chronicles Rorem's dark journey after the death of 32 year companion, Jim Holmes. In his diary, Lies, (published by Counterpoint Press in 2000) Rorem said: "My music is a diary no less compromising than my prose. A diary nevertheless differs from a musical composition in that it depicts the moment, the writer's present mood which, were it inscribed an hour later, could emerge quite otherwise. I don't believe that composers notate their moods, they don't tell the music where to go - it leads them....Why do I write music? Because I want to hear it - it's simple as that. Others may have more talent, more sense of duty. But I compose just from necessity, and no one else is making what I need."

Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana on October 23, 1923. As a child he moved to Chicago with his family; by the age of ten his piano teacher had introduced him to Debussy and Ravel, an experience which "changed my life forever," according to the composer. At seventeen he entered the Music School of Northwestern University, two years later receiving a scholarship to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He studied composition under Bernard Wagenaar at Juilliard, taking his B.A. in 1946 and his M.A. degree (along with the $1,000 George Gershwin Memorial Prize in composition) in 1948. In New York he worked as Virgil Thomson's copyist in return for $20 a week and orchestration lessons. He studied on fellowship at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood in the summers of 1946 and 1947; in 1948 his song The Lordly Hudson was voted the best published song of that year by the Music Library Association.

In 1949 Rorem moved to France, and lived there until 1958. His years as a young composer among the leading figures of the artistic and social milieu of post-war Europe are absorbingly portrayed in The Paris Diary and The New York Diary, 1951-1961 (reissued by Da Capo, 1998). He currently lives in New York City.

Ned Rorem is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

— February 2012  

Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes.  

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in an office of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on April 24, 1986.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1987, 1988, 1993, 1998 and 1999, and on WNUR in 2003.  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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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, 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 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.