Composer Arnold Rosner

A conversation with Bruce Duffie


Arnold Rosner (b. 1945) is an American composer of stage, orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal, and piano works that have been performed throughout the Americas and in Europe. He received his BA in mathematics at New York University in 1965, where he also received the highest honors in music, which he studied with Lejaren Hiller, Henri Pousseur, Allen Sapp, and Leo Smit. He received his MA in composition in 1970 and his PhD in theory in 1972 at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Arnold Rosner has earned numerous awards and grants from ASCAP, Meet the Composer and other organizations, and is the subject of a Doctoral thesis by Paul Vanderwerf at Northwestern University.

Though mainly active as a teacher, at such institutions as Brooklyn College, the College of Staten Island, the University of Western Ontario, and Wagner College, Rosner also served as assistant music director at WNYC from 1970 to 1972. Since 1983, he has taught at Kingsborough Community College.

The music of Arnold Rosner is couched formally in a neo-classical idiom, but he freely admits melodic, harmonic, and contrapuntal methods of the modern school of composition. Among the ensembles which have performed his music are the Altoona Symphony Orchestra, the Colorado Philharmonic, the Denver Symphony Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the New York Motet Choir, the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the ensemble Pinotage.

The interview you are about to read took place in May of 1994 when Rosner was in Chicago for a week of performances and recordings of his chamber music by the Ad Hoc String Quartet. Portions of the interview, interspersed with Rosner's music, subsequently aired on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago in 1995 and again in 2000.  The material was also utilized in the Doctoral thesis mentioned above.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie: Tell me the joys and sorrows of being a composer as we head out of the twentieth century.

Arnold Rosner: Well, I think that the sorrows outnumber the joys, probably.

BD: Really???

AR: It's better now than it was a few years ago, but if you really think about it, who needs this music that we're writing? I once tried to figure out what the supply and demand is. If you take the College Music Society directory and look up "Composition," you'll find hundreds of people writing music.

BD: A few years ago, Gunther Schuller said there were about 50,000 composers.

AR: Well, let's say it's 10,000...   Now let's assume these people each write roughly twenty minutes of music a year. How many minutes of music is that? 200,000 minutes?

BD: Right. (laughs)

AR: There's 1440 minutes in a day, so, 200,000 minutes means that music is being written faster than you could listen to it if you listened every moment of your life. If you listened 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, you will not listen through even what is being written in that very day.

BD: But when your string quartet is being played, somebody else's trombone quartet is being played, and somebody else's symphony is being played, and a song cycle is being sung...

AR: Somewhere.

BD: Somewhere.

AR: Right. Now, how many people are hearing them?

BD: Well, a dozen here, a hundred there, a thousand someplace else...

AR: OK...out of five billion people in the world. So the percentages are not with it. If you could produce tomatoes cheaper and more plentiful and still in high California quality, or if you could make a better automobile that burned less gas, you'd be accomplishing a whole lot more. So why do we do it? We do it because we think in our vanity that we're actually coming up with something that's going to be important to the culture of the posterity. That's why some of us do it. Others of us do it because we need it for the resumé. Others of us do it because we get paid for it.

BD: Well, why do you do it?

AR: I don't do it because I'm getting paid for it; I have had fairly few paid commissions, and I do enough. I've got more than enough for the college personnel file. I do it because of religion, but someone else would say that my religion is really vanity. And I have to justify, either by discussions like this or the actual quality of the works, that my stuff is worth having out there. The more you think about it objectively, the less confident you are. I have a very good time when I hear these pieces, when people come back to me and tell me how much they like them, when they do react that way. But it's a long, hard road to those few moments.

BD: Because of the style that you have chosen to use, I assume that you get a lot of people saying "I really liked your piece."

AR: Well, that's very gracious of you, but that's not entirely true. My style is in a netherworld between really modern and conservatively predictable. If you look around the audience when a piece of mine is being played, there are some people who just don't see what the connections are. They hear certain kinds of vocabulary and therefore assume a certain general tonal syntax, which I avoid assiduously. And those who are looking to be impressed by the newness of something aren't getting off on my pieces either. Generally, most good music requires more than one hearing anyway. That's one of the great things of course about having radio and having records. I don't quite know how people handled it before there were such things. There are people who come up and rave about pieces, but you wonder if they're raving because they really loved it, or maybe they liked one of the performers, or maybe they were just in the right mood.

BD: I've been to a number of concerts where music in your style, either yours or someone else's, has been performed, and a lot of people seem very relieved that it's not so far out that they can't even grab ahold anywhere.

AR: My claim is sometimes when it's more far out, they grab ahold of the coloristic things, or they grab ahold of the title, or they grab ahold of the rhythms. In my stuff they can't quite find the handle, and then it upsets them that they know it's not that far out, so why can't they find the handle? There are people who really get off on it. There is a small crowd of people who just pick up the way I use harmony, or the way I use rhythm, or whatever it is.  For some folks, it's an acquired taste. To others it's a very natural taste. There really is nothing like hearing a piece played really well, and getting good feedback about it. Rarely, by the way, do I feel that in a performance. In a performance I'm always concerned about rustling noises in the audience, and I'm worried that the performers are coming to a part that I know they have troubles with.  Will they get through it?  And I think, "Gee, this room feels a lot warmer than it was when I first sat down here," and, "Gee, is my watch running slow? It seems an awful lot longer..." But then when it's over and there's a good tape of the performance to listen to, I tend to take it home and have what they used to call in cinema "continuous performances" over and over. By around the fifteenth or eighteenth hearing, I sometimes say, "Hey, this is a good piece. I remember when I wrote this piece. Not bad." And of course, a CD recording session is the most stressful experience of your life. You gotta get it all, and you gotta get it today.  You may be able to get it in chunks, but even if everything there is right, sometimes the chunks are too small and might not be editable without noticeable splices, or whatever corresponds to splices in the world of digital. And, you also have to not only get it all right, but you have to retain whatever graceful contacts you had with the performers and the recording engineer before you started.

BD: (laughs) Sounds like a tall order!

AR: Well, the solution most composers use is they don't go to these things.  I've checked with any number of record companies, and less than fifty percent of living composers who could go, do go to the sessions.

BD: Really? A lot of the records that I use on the air say, "Supervised by the composer," or, "Recorded in the presence of the composer."

AR: Well, "Recorded in the presence of" is an honest remark. "Recording supervised by" is a little bit of theatrics. We do the best we can to get our points in. At least, I do the best I can to get my points in. Many composers would sooner miss the session, and then get the unedited tape and make the map, or the picks, as they call it in the business.  Other composers just don't want to be bothered, and when the product is out, they'll take it any way it is. In my opinion, you just have to be there. I don't expect for a while that there are going to be competitive recordings of any of my works, although I've heard talk of some possibilities. But until there are competitive recordings, the one recording of any piece is going to represent me for the foreseeable future. So I gotta be there.

BD: Can't you put a disclaimer and say "This recording is not the only way to play this piece?"

AR: Ah, well, you're not going to make friends in either the performing world or the record industry that way. Many years ago, there was a concert performance of the Brahms First Piano Concerto by Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein. Gould wanted to go at a tempo where the work would take 65 minutes. So Bernstein actually got up and made a disclaimer and then performed the concerto Gould's way. I don't think that was Bernstein's greatest moment. I don't see any reason to air that kind of linen publicly. If there were a CD master that I couldn't believe in, I would not permit the product to go through.

BD: When you're writing a piece, how much leeway do you expect on the part of the performers? How much interpretation do you want them to put it?

AR: Well...(pauses)...they tell me that my bark is worse than my bite that way. In fact, in a performance I think there's a lot of latitude. In a recording, I tend to think it should be fairly tight.

BD: I'm assuming that you don't want every performance and every recording of a piece to be exactly the same.

AR: I don't want every recording to be the same, if there were more than one recording. And as for performances, I don't know. I'm not that restrictive. The performers that I've worked with here in Chicago will tell you that I'm pretty easy-going about it. I tend to be very tough about things like intonation, which with choral singers and string quartets and some orchestras, can be surprisingly difficult, especially in my compositions. In a string orchestra, if you connect one consonant chord to another, they're chromatically related but each player doesn't know just what his note is in the next harmonic structure, and he has no tonal way to anticipate it. A good string player will tell you that f–sharp and g–flat are not exactly the same. Therefore, you're going to have harmonies that will come out where each player thinks he did the right thing, and yet the harmony doesn't speak. There's a lot of recordings like that, of music other than mine, and I tend to come down very hard on that sort of thing. But I've heard recordings of various composers - don't want to mention the pieces or the recordings - where there's clearly not so much out–of–tune, but not sufficiently, cleanly in–tune playing that the harmony really doesn't speak from here to there.

BD: Well, when you're writing a piece of music, do you take into account these kinds of problems and make sure those are not inherently in your piece of music?

AR: You do the best you can, but it is impossible to connect a c minor chord to an E major chord, for either a choir or a string quartet, without the intervals creating potential problems. The only way around it is to say play in an exact piano tuning, equal-tempered, twelve-note design, and if you say that to a string player, he won't play your piece. So, when I rehearse with these folks, if something's out of tune, I say, "Do you realize that the sonority in the second half of that measure is an E major triad?" Then they get it right, and they never get it wrong again after that.

BD: Do you then put that into the score so that the next quartet that plays it gets it right the first time?

AR: Well, they don't play off a score, they play off of parts. If you write it down in the part, you'd be writing what the harmony is, and that's very cluttered for parts. It looks like jazz or rock guitar notation.

BD: I was going to say that would look like a lead sheet.

AR: A lead sheet, that's right. And the players want no part of that.

BD: Perhaps occasionally, maybe two or three times in the whole piece?

AR: Well, you never really know which one is the one that's going to throw them. You see, it could be any one of several connections. It doesn't happen so much with an orchestra, because the intonation tends to average out. And it doesn't seem to happen with bands.  The reason that you get better results from a high school band than a high school orchestra is that the intonation is easier on the wind instruments. And of course it never happens on keyboard music. I should point out that I have had very excellent performances by string and choral groups. I don't want to attack that crowd. The performances by the Ad Hoc Quartet here in Evanston have been just excellent, and the only existing choral recording I have is by St. Paul's Cathedral Choir in San Diego, and is also excellent. The performance by the Alorian Quartet of my fourth quartet is fine, so there's no real problem in what's out there. But it's tough to play these instruments. Have you ever looked, ever taken a good look at a violin or cello fingerboard? It's completely smooth! No frets, no markings, no anything. I don't know how anybody can find notes on it. You just slide up and down, like skiing!

BD: Well, that's why they practice, to hit it right all the time.

AR: Then if it gets humid, the string slips a little...  I wouldn't want to play one of those instruments.

*     *     *     *     *

BD: Going back to the compositional process, when you're writing and you're working with the notes on the page, are you always in control of what goes onto that page, or are there times when you're somewhat surprised at what appears after the pen has gone by?

AR: Never by what goes on with the pen. The pen doesn't move that fast. I usually work at the piano. Any number of composers were very violently against that, and any number of composers, equally violently in favor of it. Ravel, for example, and Haydn. I generally work at the piano unless it's some percussion color thing. You never know what's going to hit you at the piano and just roll off.  Maybe it's not control, but you're certainly in control of what you decide is good and what isn't good, and then that gets in a sketch in pencil that would be illegible to anybody else. Then that is what goes to the desk and gets written into a full score. I would say I don't have any lapses of control of what's going on in the scoring. There are little things, like how you fill out a chord in the orchestration, or what the phrasing is.  Some of those seem nearly arbitrary or unimportant.

BD: What about when you're composing at the piano.  Are you ever surprised by...

AR: ...what comes out of a keyboard, yes. Occasionally I have hit wrong notes.  They actually were wrong notes which ended up being a nucleus for some other piece. Generally the idea is to sit down at the piano and see if your spirit carries you to the next thing almost improvisationally.  All technique comes in with that, but nothing that constitutes the piece taking control over me. As you probably know, I've never gone in for aleatoric techniques, or any computer-generated techniques, or even serially generated techniques.

BD: Is this because you don't feel it's right, just because it's what you have to write, or are you just trying to get something that will be performed and enjoyed?

AR: Well, there's lots of serial pieces that get performed and enjoyed, and computer-generated pieces get a lot of action, especially if you just leave them on tape and you don't need any performers for them. I don't want to take any position about what I think is right or wrong.  Other composers can do what they want to do, and I try not to be polarized about it. In my opinion, you have to write from the heart. I collect sayings, and in teaching at the college level you learn a lot of sayings and you use them here and there with classes. Schoenberg said, "If a composer does not write from the heart, he simply cannot produce good music." He said that in the midst of his full, twelve-tone middle-period serial style.

BD: But, obviously, your heart is different from his heart.

AR: Yes, but I think at his best he was OK. I think that he got into a technique that was probably too restrictive melodically and harmonically. When Schoenberg was writing from the heart, very frequently that is limited to rhythm and articulation. In his scores, you find all these crescendo–decrescendo swell markings, and all these German indications about "slightly slower," "not dragging." A lot of these are Mahlerian terms which he then uses. I get the impression if you took out all the swells, and all the "nicht schleppend" markings, and all the "mit dämpfer, ohne dämpfer," (mutes on and off) and just left the music there, it might get to sound very dry. At least that's how I feel about Schoenberg. Although I use dynamics and phrasing and everything the way the rest of the crew does, if you play it completely in a neutral way, just flat, mezzo-forte nothing, and it doesn't say anything that way, then probably you missed the boat somewhere. You threw out the baby with the bathwater. Schoenberg also said, "There's still a lot of great music to be written in C major." Now I don't think there is a lot of great music to be written in C major with tonal endings and dominant-tonic relationships. But I think there's a lot of great C major chords left to be written, and a lot of connections that involve consonant events. Schoenberg spoke of the "emancipation of dissonance." The truth was, in the early twentieth century, consonance too was emancipated, and that's what the conservative composer (and I think I could be called a conservative composer) is tying into. You can really express a whole lot of things connecting things that are not crashingly dissonant. I tried to be as graceful as possible about acknowledging that I'm outnumbered, and I was even more outnumbered in the 60's and 70's than I am now.  These days, part of the outnumbering is the New Age crowd, who, I think, figured out a way to do something totally opposite to the twelve-tone crowd and avant-garde crowd and still didn't get it right.

BD: Does it please you at all that more and more composers are becoming "conservative composers?"

AR: You know, they keep telling me that, and I've listened to some of what's happening out there, and I guess it doesn't please me that there are more and more conservative composers in and of itself. I think a lot of them are not only turning to more conservative idioms, but to almost simplistic kind of use of that stuff. I'm trying not to mention names or titles. I could probably be induced to...

BD: No, no, I don't want you to.

AR: Good. But I think there's some stuff out there that really is simpleminded, and makes "conservative composer" sound silly. What I think is the good news is that it is possible for a composer today to write in any style, and not be thrown out of court just on the basis of what that style is. You can do what you want to do.

BD: That's a good thing.

AR: Yeah, that's a good thing. Much of the new conservatism doesn't thrill me just yet. There's plenty of old conservatism that didn't get enough attention, and, you know, never made it real, real big.

[At this point, Rosner enumerated several composers including Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, David Diamond, Paul Creston, Vincent Persichetti, Norman Dello Joio and Peter Menin, who were being recorded by Delos in Seattle conducted by Gerard Schwarz, and being played in St. Louis conducted by Leonard Slatkin.]

BD: So you feel it is a good that we're getting these recordings of that generation?

AR: I think in principle that's very good.

BD: Because that's part of our musical heritage?

AR: I don't think it's restricted to this country.

BD: No, but these are American recordings, so we are putting in the American bits.

AR: Yeah, right, right. It's reaching the point now where those composers are well-represented on CD.  Of course, is that really good news, or is it just that with the position of a CD player now in almost any collector's house, there's just lots and lots of stuff getting recorded? I claim partly that's how I've gotten some things recorded. It's just a good season for that. I don't know how much concert life some of these pieces have.

BD: They have to have a concert life before they get a record, don't they?

AR: Well, no, they don't.  It's entirely possible to have a record first.

BD: I thought it was part of the contract that they have to play it in the season it will be recorded, at least with American orhcestras.

AR: My Responses, Hosanna, and Fugue has not yet had a premiere concert performance, but that was recorded in England. That record has gotten a lot of play, and very good reviews. But a concert life of one performance before a recording is still not a concert life.

BD: True, true.

AR: And I don't know how many times we can reasonably expect to hear, say, Mennin's Seventh Symphony in American orchestras in the course of a year, or ten years. I don't recall ever seeing a program including it. I'm sure it has happened when it first came out. My pieces haven't done that well in terms of concert performances, either. I think I get more chamber performances than symphonic.

BD: Well, as an interested observer, how much new music should be peppered into the subscription series of the big orchestras, the small orchestras, the major chamber groups, the less major chamber groups?

AR: Anybody who asks that question, or even speaks to it, clearly has an ax to grind.

BD: I'm looking for your ax.

AR: But you know what it's going to be. We don't need to hear the Mozart 39th symphony over and over again, and we don't need to hear the potboiler concertos over and over again. There should be at least one piece of fifteen minutes or more by a living (or recently deceased) composer on every program. You can hear that spouted by the mouths of the members of the board of directors of half the orchestras in the country. I attended the American Symphony Orchestra League Convention last year, and it was coming out of everybody's lips. Then in the other forums, when they're discussing balance sheets and corporate contributions, orchestras claim they can't survive unless they provide what the public wants.  Then you have the ethical question of whether an orchestra should survive if that's what the situation is. I'm not in a position to contribute enough money to keep a regional orchestra afloat.

BD: Are we now able to do an end run around the orchestras by having the recordings?

AR: Well, as I said, that's what I've done to some degree, and other composers have done. But it is a sad situation. The classical music composer, I think, alienated the public somewhere around Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. That's not a full orchestra piece, but sometime after the Rite of Spring we started alienating the public. I teach enough music appreciation in college to know students aren't even taught how to listen at all to a composer as palatable as Nielsen.

BD: It's interesting you say "we." You include yourself amongst the community of composers, even though you're not an atonal composer at all.

AR: Well, a composer is a composer. I'm clearly a composer.  Once you step out of the dominant-tonic relationships and predictable rhythms. You are then challenging the performers and the listener to stay with you measure for measure, consciously.

BD: But I feel it's just interesting you would shoulder some of that responsibility.

AR: Well, I don't shoulder a whole lot of it, because certainly as a teacher I make sure my students are ready, willing, and able to listen to Shostakovich and Nielsen, and...

BD: And Schoenberg and Babbitt?

AR: Certainly not Babbitt. You can listen to Babbitt all you like, if you're a student of mine, but I can't defend that stuff. Schoenberg, I think, as I said, has his moments and has his integrity here and there. I'm not a big fan, but I do introduce my students to Schoenberg. But Babbitt, not meaning to single him out, represents sort of the height of the 60's "spaghetti avant–garbage" and, yes, that's what I said. I think just as the 60's represent a high point in political and social consciousness in this country, I think the 60's represent a low point in aesthetics' self-destructiveness. I realize I said I was trying not to be too polarized in my maturity, but I'm pretty polarized about that.

BD: Good strong opinions are sometimes helpful.

AR: But still there is the sense that we may have lost the audiences. I'm not responsible because it happened before I was born.  We may have lost the audiences somewhere around the 20's, 30's, and 40's, and then buried our chances almost totally in the 60's.  Now the people who write an occasional tune are saying, "Hey, wait a minute! It's not my fault."

BD: So are you trying to dig them up or are you trying to start afresh?

AR: Well, mostly I'm trying to start afresh with my compositions. They're being dug up fairly well by Gerard Schwartz and Leonard Slatkin and the record companies. I did my doctoral thesis on the music of Hovhaness, and there is some very good music there. There's probably too much music there, and you just can't dig it all up. There are other composers. Who knows about the composers we may have completely forgotten and bypassed altogether? There were composers out there that people talked about twenty or thirty years ago...

[Again, he enumerates several including Richard Yardumian, John La Montaine, Ronal Lo Presti, Robert Moeves, and Robert Kurka.]

AR: This is sort of like total obscurity. Are these composers has-beens, wannabes, or never weres? I've heard pieces by these composers, and there is good stuff by all of them. I don't know if they rank with Barber or Mennin or certain European composers. But they're out there, and nobody listens to that stuff at all. It's not being revived. And of course I'm very concerned about just how far my stuff's going to go, and how long it's going to stay, and what's going to become of all of it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD: Turning now from your own composition to your teaching for just a moment, what advice do you have for the students of composition that you are teaching?

AR: Well, I would like to be in a position to speak responsibly to that, but I teach at a college where we rarely see composition students. I teach at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, which is a two year college. There are many very exciting things going on in that program. For a two-year school it has a remarkable music program, and we do occasionally have people who are interested in composition. But we do not formally teach composition...

BD: So your advice would be different if you were at Juilliard or Manhattan?

AR: The first questions that I have given to anybody who claimed to be a composition student are, "Why do you want to do this? Are you sure you want to do this? Didn't your mother and father tell you you don't want to do it?"

BD: What happens when you can't talk him out ?

AR: When you really can't talk him out of it, then you want to be sure you can find a style for him. Or that he can find a style.

BD: I was going to say, you don't find it for him, do you?

AR: I try not to, but there is a natural tendency for a student to emulate the style of his teacher. I can get around that somewhat by forcing a student to write a twelve-tone piece. I can manipulate the numbers and get into the swells. You ‘d be surprised what sensitivity you can develop that way. I always used to give the assignment of writing an unaccompanied piece for flute or horn, or something like that, so the piece has no harmony in it at all so they can't be imitating the way I play with harmony. In the end, however, in any good school, if you have a composition faculty member, the students are going to hear that person's works and they are very likely to pick up on it somehow. Traditionally, throughout music history, you can tell relationships from teacher to student. The story is that Berg was taking a train to a certain place to study composition with Hans Pfitzner, and apparently something went wrong with the train connection. He only had so many bucks and so much patience, so he went to another town and studied with Schoenberg instead. We would have had a very different Alban Berg, perhaps.

BD: I'm trying to imagine Lulu in the style of Pfitzner.

AR: Well, he might not have chosen those subjects. If you look at Wozzeck and Lulu, there is a certain redundancy in the subject matter.

BD: They're both pretty brutal.

AR: They're brutal, and sexually–psychologically motivated. The victims don't really change gender. They're victims and perpetrators.

BD: Well, Pfitzner wrote Palestrina, so then Berg might have written Schütz. (laughs)

AR: That could have been pretty interesting. But I don't have composition students to speak of. I find myself teaching a lot of appreciation, rudiments, and...

BD: In a way, that's probably more important, because now you're training people who will then go and be consumers, rather than creators. Especially, as you said a long time ago, there are perhaps too many creators and too much creating going on.

AR: There clearly is a surplus and the audience is generally acclimated to certain predictable things. When I have a class of fifty music appreciation students, I try to achieve something with them that way.

BD: Well, let me ask the big, basic question: What advice do you have for concert audiences?

AR: Most of my music appreciation classes are not even classical concertgoers. They're not interested in classical music at all, and if they are, they're interested in a limited way. I start by saying, "You owe it to the experience to allow the piece of classical music to do anything that you allow a piece of theatre or a painting to do for you. And if all it does for you is provide some acceptable passing entertainment of a light-hearted nature, or, where the music is almost unimportant, just getting off on watching somebody sing or play, sort of an athletic event, or some kind of comedy, or something you use so you can read while you're listening to it" (everybody reads while you listen to classical music if you listen a lot), I simply say to them, "Whatever you would allow a film to do, you have to let a piece of music do to you. Even if it hurts, even if it's heavy. Students find this hard to digest, because music doesn't engage the eyes or the verbal senses. If you have students listening to the radio, or listening to a recording, it's just going in the ears, and it doesn't have words and it doesn't have numbers, other than digital numbers. And this may sound surprising to listeners of this station, but a very large proportion of the population just doesn't get off on it.

BD: Listeners to this station understand that. They know that they are a minority.

AR:  But within the minority, it's again a minority that really is interested in the emotional variety, and intensity, and message, of the various pieces. On radio stations in New York, it's just one Vivaldi concerto after another, half the time. I have no problem with any one Vivaldi concerto. I do have a problem with the sparsity of variety among them.

BD: (chuckles) That's one of the reasons I gave you a copy of the WNIB Program Guide. Most of the times I give it to people, especially people in New York, they start drooling and saying, "Boy, I wish this were here!"

AR: New York used to be a good place to listen to classical music on the radio, and it's gotten a very big, commercial-oriented audience. New Yorkers are so busy and crazed out, and so stressed (or at least that's the theory), that if you play them anything heavier than Leopold Mozart it's too much. The radio stations don't even want to play a Brahms Serenade except in the midnight hours. Of course, then we have our municipal radio station which is so busy trying to be trendy that it's a whole other picture. We may get all kinds of touring orchestras, but they will be careful to play that program which will sell out Carnegie Hall, or Avery Fisher Hall. They're unlikely to do something that isn't going to sell out that hall.

BD: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is currently on tour, and one of the pieces they're taking with them is the brand new Carter piece, because Carter does well in Europe, so they wanted to be sure and put that on that show.

AR: Well, I was at two concerts given by college orchestras within a couple of weeks; I won't mention the orchestras. One of them included not the Third Symphony, but some other piece by Gorecki. The piece didn't go anywhere for 45 minutes. There wasn't an empty seat in the house. Within a couple of weeks from that, there was a performance of the Vaughan Williams Antarctic Symphony, which hadn't been performed for a very long time in New York, if ever at all. And the hall was two-thirds empty.

BD: I would go to both of them, but that's me.

AR: Well, I went to both of them, and this was a very weak Gorecki piece. Gorecki's not a complete turkey, but that piece was nowhere.

BD: The average Joe on the street is not going to know that going in.

AR: Well, the average Joe on the street is not going to one of these concerts, anyway.

BD: But even the average Joe concertgoer who's up on a lot of things is not going to know which Gorecki piece is good, and which Gorecki piece is bad.

AR: Right, but I'm trying to figure out why the Vaughan Williams Antarctic Symphony didn't draw anybody. New York is very good for certain out-ot-the-way things, like early music and ethnic music. If you want to hear whole festivals of masters in Indian improvisatory music or Turkish music, there are whole institutions there. It happens in the universities; in other places in New York it's happening more than that. The concert and opera situation, I think, could be a lot better. But the country's getting so much smaller now with fax machines and all the other ways we have of sending things in and around. You just write music wherever you're comfortable, and buy records. That's what I do.

*     *     *     *     *

BD: You're approaching the big five-oh. Are you at the point in your career where you want to be at this point?

AR: I would rather not be approaching fifty, but it has nothing to do with my career. I would say that I have some catching up to do. There was a period of time until 1974, which means I was 28 or 29, when I had never never heard any orchestral piece of mine, and I had never heard a good performance of any piece of mine. And in 1974 I was already up to Opus 60. Now what possessed me to keep writing under those conditions is a whole other matter. At this point, I have heard well over half my compositions decently performed. Eleven of them are available on discs, with five or ten more on the way. I have four or five orchestral works handled by a publisher, four or five band works handled by a different publisher, and the recordings have engendered reviews and so forth. So there's clearly been progress, but the progress had a start from such a really obscure place. If I now extrapolate, "Where will I be when I'm sixty or seventy?" in terms of being an elder statesman of American composition, I would say I'm currently not on that track yet. If not quantum leap, another upward slant is needed before that happens. Sometimes these things can happen. One piece just hits the right public the right way, and gets the right publicity, and suddenly you're, you're on the map. I don't know; it hasn't really happened to me yet.

BD: Do you desperately want it to happen, or are you just hopeful that it might happen?

AR: Well, you know the saying, "Give me the fortitude to accept what I cannot change, the strength to deal with what I can change, and the wisdom to tell them apart." If I was really desperate, there are ways to get yourself on the map. Certain political ways, subsidy, bribery. You can buy all the recordings you want if you have money. I don't have that kind of money, but... There's all kinds of games that can be played, and you can also compromise what you write.

BD: Can the people who do that really get there and stay there if they can't deliver the goods?

AR: Well, the way they think is, "Let's get there and worry about staying there later."

BD: OK. (chuckles)

AR: Meanwhile, you can compromise any number of things. People suggest to me that I write something real mainstream. It's not clear at all what that means right now, but at certain times it's been clear. For instance, I've been asked by a certain publisher to write a junior high school band piece, or two. Now a junior high school band piece is automatic because there aren't a lot of junior high school band pieces. There's a reason: you can't do anything to speak of with a junior high school band. But his theory was, "Once you get that on the map, all the band directors at conventions will hear about you, and all your real band pieces will be on the map." That's an interesting dilemma. Are you willing to sell out on one piece? Are you willing to do that? Let's suppose that it was natural for me to write a replica of Star Wars or a replica of the Gorecki Third Symphony. That's not who I am, so it's not going to happen. Besides, those have been done already. But suppose I could have done it, and then use that heat, that intensity, suddenly to get everything else on the map as fast as I could, before it wore off. If you think that's a crazy thing to suggest, Gorecki has done just that. I don't know if he's tried to do it, but now everything of his is getting played. To some extent Stravinsky did it with The Rite of Spring. As it is, I'm just not going to sell out or compromise. I feel very strongly that every piece has to be absolutely genuine. As for being desperate about getting really, really on the map, I don't know. Who's really on the map? Is Martinu on the map? Is he really, really on the map? Is Vaughan Williams really, really on the map?

BD: They're on the periphery of the map.

AR: They're not Philip Glass. Of course, I think those composers are way better than Philip Glass, but sometimes it's better not to have the largest possible reputation; not to have a reputation with the largest possible public, but to affect a certain moderate size public more deeply. I think, for instance, a composer like Martinu does that.

BD: Well, are you satisfied that you have moved the public that you want to move?

AR: I am satisfied that I am moving in that direction. More is to be accomplished, of course, with a little exposure of my works on WNIB, that's a little help. But I think if you ask any other composers, you're not going to find too many who'll say that they are utterly happy with the degree of their reputation. There are composers who will say, "I get everything played by more than one orchestra, as fast as I can write it." I understand that Corigliano has recently said that to conductors who have asked for opportunities to conduct pieces. "I get everything done; I don't need any help from you," he said. Politefully, you know, gracefully, nothing vitriolic. But I don't know if he's happy enough with his reputation. He has a reputation; I don't know if he feels he's on the map. You want to be so on the map that you can come to the end of your life confident that you will be on the map in 500 years.

BD: So you want to be Bach.

AR: Well, Bach did not have that confidence.

BD: It took a while ‘til Mendelssohn dug him up.

AR: But he didn't know Mendelssohn was going to dig him up! Bach came along, and his own children thought he was old hat, and pompous, and frilly, whatever they thought he was. And his music was in fair obscurity, not totally obscure, until everybody studied him in school. Wagner probably thought he was going to be on the map for the duration, but that's because of Wagner's ego, and not necessarily because of any reality. But you want to know you're really taken seriously, and it's not just a fad. That's why maybe it is better to really move a minority, a small group of people.

BD: Just out of curiosity, is there any composer who's hit that wonderful balance of having enough ego but not too much, and yet enough deliverable goods but not so much, and making it just right?

AR: Contemporary American composer?

BD: No, let's do the long dead composers, and then the contemporary composers.

AR: How ‘bout Dvorak? There's a good composer, who is not generally considered the greatest composer of the 19th century, but who has his own je ne sais quoi, has been consistently on the map, and it looks like he's going to stay on the map. Ochestras play him, choral groups sing his works. His operas don't get enough play, but a couple of them do. He wrote quartets and things. There's one composer who sort of worked it out: You mentioned Schütz before, as the subject of a fictitious Berg opera, well, as a matter of fact, I think Schütz is one of the greatest composers of all time, and I don't know that his music has been in eclipse at any time. I don't know if they were doing Schütz in the late 18th century, but he certainly is getting a little bit of revival now, and has for the last 80 or 100 years. In our time, Barber I think hit the right reputation.

BD: But he isn't played consistently enough, I don't think.

AR: Well, I guess he's one of the composers who are heard frequently enough. Everybody knows the works so they don't feel the need to play them in concerts all the time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD: We've been talking around this for a while, but I don't know if we've actually hit the question precisely: What's the purpose of music?

AR: Well, as I told you before, more minutes of music are written in any one day than you can listen to, so by any normal utilitarian argument there is no purpose. Therefore there must be some inflated spiritual purpose, not a utilitarian, practical purpose. A piece of music should change the life of the person who hears it. That sounds inflated and arrogant, and we don't achieve that with every listening and every composition, but that's really what it's all about. Just to go out there and entertain for a little while and go through either a neoclassical or a twelve-tone or an aleatoric or a minimalist procedure and say, "Well I could have just this unit," and "OK, the audience likes it," then what you've done is to inflate the glut a little more, add to the weight of paper as opposed to causing someone to say life's a little different now. That's what it should be, and of course you have to be careful that you don't write pieces too heavy and get pretentious about it. Ideally you want to change people's lives gently. They might not even realize it. That's what I think it's about, but I don't know. Not everybody would agree with that. Probably the Orientals would consider that an extremely arrogant thing to say. A real good Buddhist or a Tibetan monk would think that the music is just there like the Tao, like the river, just flows, and if what you are put on this earth to do is to make it flow, then make it flow.

BD: As opposed to the people who want to write music like the Dow Jones.

AR: Right, that's interesting, too. I worked in Wall Street for a year or so.

BD: Did that help you in your composing or is that something you want to just forget?

AR: The theory at that time, as I didn't have a teaching job, was there a way to make enough money for little enough time and energy that there was complete freedom to compose. I did not make enough money in that period, and it didn't. It did consume too much energy so that wasn't the best idea. But a number of composers have done it, most notably Ives, who's not so much in Wall Street, but in insurance. And there have been others. We think of Francis Thorne as more of a benefactor to other composers at the American Composer's Alliance, American Composer's Orchestra, and he deserves a lot of credit for that, but he's a composer himself and of course has made his situation in Wall Street. That's fine for them. I prefer a teaching schedule and, other than independent wealth which I don't have, the teaching arrangement works for me until I start getting commissions.

BD: Well, if all of a sudden you hit the New York State lottery and are showered with twenty million dollars, would that change your compositional style?

AR: I don't play the lottery.

BD: OK, someone gives you the winning ticket.

AR: That wouldn't change my compositional style. I might write a couple of happy pieces, you know, a couple of pieces with major triad endings.

BD: You mean it would take twenty million dollars to get you to write a happy piece? (laughs)

AR: Well, I sometimes write a happy piece. Maybe it's my ethnic origin, but if I had twenty million dollars all of a sudden tomorrow, I would start worrying about my health. They're gonna catch up with me some other way. You never stop worrying. I don't think it would change my compositional style at all. My compositional style was set very early. As soon as I took the first piano lesson. Even before the first piano lesson I would go to the piano and pick out triads and connect them using a twelve note vocabulary rather than all white keys. It was triad after triad, but they were chromatically related. That was from the age of eight or nine. That's not the only essential of my style, but that's certainly a major one. I'm not the only person who does it, of course, but I have made more of a style of that as opposed to other composers who use it at moments. I'm using it all the time. That was from the beginning and I don't think that has anything to do with whether there was a lottery ticket there or not. Arguably if I had that lottery ticket, I might somehow lose the energy to compose altogether, I don't know.

BD: I assume you would stop teaching.

AR: Oh, I don't know. The only reason to stop teaching is from a socialist and utilitarian viewpoint. Namely, there's some other poor schnook out there who needs this job. But unless I had that altruistic motivation, I see no reason not to keep teaching. I might get a little fussy about what courses they gave me. No more classes at eight or nine o' clock in the morning.

BD: Thank you for bringing your music to Chicago.

AR: Thank you for choosing it, thank you very much.

===  ===  ===  ===  ===
--  --  --  --  --
===  ===  ===  ===  ===


©1994 Bruce Duffie

For a full list of the works of Arnold Rosner, visit  this page on the site maintained by Paul Vanderwerf.

Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 for just over 25 years, and his series of programs featuring interviews with musicians won for him the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Broadcast Award in 1991.  Some of his conversations have also appeared in various magazines and journals, and now are also being posted on  this website .  A full list of his guests, as well as links to the material on the website is available there.  You can also find photos of the station, as well as personal and professional information and candid shots.  He also responds to serious E-Mail .