Composer / Conductor  Gerhard  Samuel

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Seattle, Washington, March 25th 2008.

Composer, conductor, teacher Gerhard Samuel passed away today of cardiac arrest at his home on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle.

Samuel was born in Bonn, Germany, on April 20th, 1924, and moved to America with his immediate family in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution.  He can claim a long international career as conductor, founder of festivals, tireless promoter of new music, prolific composer, and professor of music and conducting.

He studied at Eastman School of Music, and at Yale University under Paul Hindemith. At Tanglewood he was a protégé of Serge Koussevitsky.  He worked on Broadway, promoted American music in post-war Paris, and was an associate conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony, working under Antal Dorati.

In 1959 he became Music Director of the Oakland symphony and San Francisco Ballet.  He founded the Oakland Chamber Orchestra and was first conductor of the Cabrillo Festival.  In 1971 he became associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and a professor at California Institute of the Arts.  In 1976 he was appointed to the faculty of the University of Cincinnati, College - Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Ohio.  As music director of the Conservatory’s Philharmonia Orchestra, he tirelessly championed avant-garde music, and brought the orchestra to international standing, culminating in a performance at the International Mahler Festival in Paris in 1989.

Behind Samuel’s public persona as performer and teacher was a composer  of remarkable and enduring originality.  His work is hyper-expressive melodically, evocative, sensuous and constantly shifting in sound and fabric. He was ceaselessly creative, and at the time of his death he was working on an opera based on Thomas Mann’s novella “The Blood of the Walsungs”.

He retired to Seattle in 1996, and loved to spend time at his cabin in the Cascade Mountains.  He is survived by his partner Achim Nicklis, sister Erica Wilhelm, nephews Cris and Marc Wilhelm and their families, and by his cousins and friends.

--  From the Music in Cincinnati website (with additions).  
--  Names which are links (both in this box and below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


See my interview with John Cage



During my quarter-century at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, it was my good fortune to be able to present many contemporary composers.  By organizing them in such a way as to celebrate round birthdays, I did not have to worry about any kind of neglect or over-exposure.  There was no bias, nor any kind of selectivity.  Assuming there were commercial recordings, I endeavored to get an interview, and in preparation for his 65th birthday in April of 1989, Gerhard Samuel was gracious enough to allow me to interview him by telephone the previous November.  That program, as well as repeats five and ten years later became part of my series.

When WNIB was sold and changed format (in 2001), I began making transcriptions of these conversations, and posting them on my website.  To mark what would have been his 95th birthday, this interview now takes its place among them.

samuel Here is what was said that evening . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are both a conductor and a composer.  How do you divide your time between those two very different activities?

Gerhard Samuel:   My composing shifts mostly to the summer, and my conducting mostly takes place during the other nine months.  Although I do some composing, between teaching and conducting I don’t have as much time for composing during those months as I’d like to.  Most of my big works I try to do in the summer.

BD:   In the summer, then, do you get enough time to compose the way you want to?

GS:   Not quite, unfortunately.  But unless you work with films and things like that, it’s really very hard to make a decent living just composing.  So, I’m in a bit of a straight-jacket.

BD:   Is composing concert music something that should pay a living wage?

GS:   I certainly think so.  I was conducting a festival of contemporary music in Oslo, Norway, and there the composer is considered a national asset, and is helped by the State to have enough time to compose and be creative.  But here we have to fend for ourselves, and it’s more difficult.

BD:   Is the quality and quantity of the work that is turned out in Norway commensurate with the amount of support that they’re getting?

GS:   That’s hard for me to judge because I don’t have access to everything that is written in Norway.  The few people that I’ve come in contact with
like Arne Nordheimcertainly are very, very fine composers.  He produces a lot of works, and I think they all are high quality.  In Denmark there are also programs for that, and some of the composers I’ve known there certainly have more time and leisure for their composition careers than here.

BD:   What are some of the traits that go into making a piece of music have this high quality that we look for?

GS:   [Laughs]  That’s always an impossible question to answer.  There has to be a great deal of leeway given to the composers.  They have to have time to experiment, they have to have time to follow their natural bent, and, if given sufficient exposure, they will find an audience.  That’s one of the things that’s important.  For some things they don’t find an audience until sometime later.  Many times, the composer’s ahead of his or her time, and to try to judge them by contemporary standards might be harmful, because somebody with a creative mind might just not have the chance to do anything.  My own feeling is that the music should be communicative.  It should move, it should hear a change.  But, of course, the hearer has to learn the language, and there are many different languages spoken today.  That’s why we need to give both the audience and the composer the time for this mutual communication and reception.

BD:   Are there perhaps too many musical languages going on?

GS:   There’s nothing we can do about that, but global communication being what it is, and being so very different, from what it was a hundred years ago, that’s inevitable because we all are now exposed to many different languages.  So, it is more difficult and possibly more confusing, but also much richer.  One cannot say too much.  It is what it is, and we have to find ways of coping with that plenitude.

BD:   We have an abundance of riches, perhaps?

GS:   An abundance, yes, but I wouldn’t necessarily say super abundance.

BD:   When you are composing, do you try to make your music great, or is it just something has to come out, and whatever is in your music winds up being your music?

GS:   We certainly don’t try and make it great.  I feel that I have something to say, and I’ve found for myself a language that works for me.  I write music because there are things I want to say, and whether that is great or not will depend on the future and on acceptance.  I think it’s good, and I have found that to communicate I write the things I want to say in music.

samuel BD:   Are most of your pieces on commission?

GS:   A lot of them, possibly most, yes.  I just had a premiere, as a matter of fact, this last Wednesday.  The Trio Basso of Cologne, Germany, had asked me to write a piece for them.  It’s a group of people that travel internationally and do a great deal of recordings
bass, cello and viola.  Most of their repertoire are works that were specifically written for them.  They were planning to be in Cincinnati, and I was contacted by them and asked if I would write a piece for them.  I liked the opportunity to do that.  So one of the things I worked on last summer was this piece for them, which they premiered on Wednesday.  It was rather a hectic day.  They arrived from Chicago at four in the afternoon, and that was the first time I heard the piece.  We had an hour to work on it.  They, of course, had prepared it extremely well, but there were things to be donewhich we didand the premiere took place three hours later that night.  It went very well, and people seemed to like it.

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Anne Marie Ketchum, and Aurelio de la Vega.]

GS:   I would say yes.  Most pieces can stand usually stand up.  Some performances might be a little less than ideal, but something has to come through.  If a piece can only be completely realized through absolute perfection, then there might be something wrong.  We all want that perfect performance, but it’s not always attainable.  I don’t want to compare myself to Mozart, but even hearing a Mozart piano sonata played not quite perfectly, certainly the music comes through.  It’s the same of most music that I know.  This is different with electronic music, of course.

BD:   Right, because there there’s only one way of doing it.

GS:   Right.

BD:   You say that a perfect performance is not always attainable.  Is it really ever attainable?

GS:   A perfect performance is attainable in the sense that if the piece is done at a level at which it really moves the audience, and changes the audience, and brings through the essence of the piece, it’s as good a performance as you can get, but it is just one performance of the piece.  Since the music I write is played by human beings on instruments, every performance would be different.  There may be some extremely well-played performances that I might find the pacing not quite as idea as another performance, where maybe technically there might be flaws, but the understanding of the music is better.  So, one cannot make an absolute statement about the perfect performance.  There are so many different kinds of good performances.

BD:   How much interpretative leeway do you want
or expecton the part of your interpreters?

GS:   Given the extreme shortcomings of western notation, we have to rely a great deal on them.  We write down as much as we can, but there still has to be that understanding of the idiom on the part of the performers that fills in those little inadequacies that are part of our notation.  That’s true of music today, as it is of the music of Brahms or Bach.  Western notation has never been very perfect.

BD:   Do you see it improving, or do we just have to put up with it the way it is?

GS:   We keep adding on little things all the time.  New notation devices are invented either for effects that haven’t been noted before, or to make sure that everything’s played as much as possible as you want it.  On the other hand, depending on the kind of music one writes, in the emotional curve the interpreter has to supply things to make the music come to life.  The composer counts on that, and a good interpreter understands that.  If I were to write music that wouldn’t need that leeway, then I would write electronic music where you just manufacture exactly what you want.  I’m not putting it down.  I’m saying that when you write for living instruments and living people, then that extra element exists, and that is an exciting element, a creative element.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I assume you have conducted a lot of your own works?

GS:   Yes, most of them.

BD:   Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

GS:   I don’t think so, no.  As a matter of fact, I have come to the point where I really would rather have somebody else do first performances with me present, especially with orchestral music.  Sitting in the audience, I have a much better overall view of what’s going on than being on the podium and occupied with and communicating with players, and not necessarily being in the ideal position of creating balances, or sitting back judging a tempo.  It’s easier for me being in the audience than doing a first performance of mine, but I would like to be there, whenever possible, for that first performance.

BD:   Are there times when the interpreters find things in your scores you didn’t know you’d hidden there?

GS:   Oh, it happens all the time!  [Laughs]  It’s very nice.

BD:   When you’re conducting your own music
perhaps a first performancedo you approach your score differently than you’d approach a score by somebody else, either new or old?

GS:   Not really.  The strange thing is that conducting with them, and music and writing are so different then after I’m done with a score, and it’s gone over … gone over it and hopefully everything is written down the way I want it, then I have to learn it as if it’s somebody else’s piece and start worrying about the conductorial problems, so it’s … I have to approach it like somebody else’s score that I don’t know.

BD:   Do you ever look at yourself in the mirror and say,
I wish that composer had done this with that phrase instead of what he did?

samuel GS:   If that happens, I change it!  [Laughs]  I make changes, but I must say that I make very few.  Usually things work very easily.  It’s often just a question of having to change the tempo marking a little bit.  It might feel better doing it slightly slower or slightly faster, or where maybe I didn’t write the dynamics clear enough.  But I have very rarely changed notes or instrumentation.  As a regular conductor, I might have a little easier time than some composers with orchestral scores because I’ve been in orchestras all my life.  It’s easier for me to direct an orchestral piece than somebody who’s never stood in front of an orchestra.

BD:   Do other conductors who conduct your music say that your score is easier to read, or cleaner, or more exact?

GS:   I haven’t had so many conductors’ comments, but I certainly have had reviews that seem to always say that I know how to handle the orchestra well... and without blushing, I think it’s probably true.

BD:   When you’re conducting other people’s music, you must decide which pieces you’re going to play and which pieces you’re going to set aside.  How do you make those decisions?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Henri Lazarof.]

GS:   That depends on so many factors.  Obviously, I can’t do all the pieces I’d like to do because of time constraints, and programming constraints, and opportunities.  When I plan my season here for the works that I conduct, I have to worry about a lot of things.  Some pieces I do because they’re written by composers who live here, and who I think should be heard.  That’s one of the responsibilities I have.  Some pieces I do because they’re well known and haven’t been done here, and I feel the players and the audience should be exposed to them.  Some piece I do here because they cross my desk and I think they’re fantastic, and they should be done.

BD:   What is it that makes a piece fantastic?

GS:   It has to appeal to me.  It’s very personal.  There’s no abstract reason.  [Laughs]  It
s like when you asked me before about what’s the perfect performance, I can’t answer that.

BD:   It has to hit you between the eyes?

GS:   Yes, if it appeals to my aesthetic, if it’s a piece that I think is well done, that expresses something very strong, that’s going to communicate with the audience, and sounds like it would be a wonderful addition to the repertoire.  But that’s very personal.  Some other conductor might prefer another style.  I’m not saying that I only conduct pieces that are written in certain styles.  I’ve certainly conducted vastly different music, and I can judge jolly well whether a piece is really going to hang together and then work.  I have a totally different kind of experience.  Here in Cincinnati we also we do a lot of readings of new works by younger composers who may not otherwise have the chance to hear their works, and for whom it’s important to hear what the orchestration sounds like, and how the piece holds together.  When we do those, I take whatever comes because they all deserve an equal chance.  The only limitations people might have would be time.  These reading prove very valuable both to the players, and especially the composers, of course.

BD:   What advice do you have for composers today?

GS:   I find that a lot of young composers are ignorant of our past.  I just don’t hear music hanging there and related to anything that’s gone before.  I see some scores that could be much better if only there was some connection to what’s around us and what’s behind us.  I find that some of the people who write orchestral music are not well enough trained in the resources of the orchestra, and how to write for orchestra.  That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be innovative.  There are always new things to discover, but some things that are written by some of the people I know just don’t work very well.  Then, when I talk to them and tell them this doesn’t work, they’re willing to make some changes.  But there are many opportunities to hear orchestras and study live music, and I find that this is not always taken advantage of.  I haven’t taught composition, really, very much, and I’m not terribly interested in it.  But I feel that one should leave the composer to do his own aesthetic, and help him or her along that aesthetic, and not impose one’s own tastes.  The advice should be technical.  I myself studied with Paul Hindemith, and found that even though I admired him, and I still admire him very much, he was not a good teacher of composition because the red pencil always altered my music to become similar to his.  My own bent and idiosyncrasies were suppressed, and it took me quite a number of years to come out from under that and start writing music that was really mine.  When I watched people like Milhaud and Boulanger or Kirchner teach, these are people who are willing to understand the individual and his style, and work with the individual along the directions in which he wants to go, and just keep the comments to technical matters and not of the style.  My advice to a young composer is to find a teacher who’s willing to do all that.

BD:   Are there those kinds of teachers around?

GS:   Oh, yes!  I definitely think so.  It doesn’t mean the teacher can’t be stimulating, and if he finds the areas in composition that the young person hasn’t been in contact with, the student might benefit from them or find them fruitful.  There are lots of things to show them and to expose them to.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask about the other half of your career.  What advice do you have for young conductors?

samuel GS:   To show that you’re really very good before you start because there are too many of us.  It’s a difficult field.

BD:   Too difficult?

GS:   Not too difficult.  It’s just a difficult field, and there are a lot of people that are conducting.  I know from my own experience how difficult it is even for my best students to find decent jobs.  So, I tend to discourage people who come to me unless I’m really convinced that they at least have the potential of being very, very good, because you need to be that to make it.  Not only that, but it’s very important that only best conductors are around, because otherwise we just perpetuate mediocrity, which we don’t want to do, of course.

BD:   Whose fault is it that we are perpetuating mediocrity at all?

GS:   The schools that accept people who are less than talented.  There’s quite a bit of that in the education field, unfortunately.  Somebody who conducts in high schools should be as good and talented as somebody who conductors a larger orchestra.  That’s where it all starts, and if we can’t get very young people exposed to the very best kind of music-making, then it just leads to more bad music-making.  There’s lots of that.

BD:   Is there a joker in this deck with the recordings always presenting
perfect performances?

GS:   The joker is it’s bad for the audience.  It’s good for music to get around, but it also takes away from the specialness of music, and the specialness of a concert occasion.  It presents a false reality when it comes to concert-hall music.  We cannot sound the way we sound on a CD, and the soloist cannot sound against an orchestra the way he sounds on his CD.  It’s a reality that has made concert life very difficult.  I always try to encourage people to go to concerts and keep their minds fresh, and not listen to the same pieces over and over again at home because it should be a special experience.  I hope I’m on treading on any toes, but a lot of good music stations are really not doing everybody a service, because you go in the car, and you hear fifteen minutes of Beethoven Fifth.  Then you’ve arrived, and you turn it off.  This kind of thing happens all day long, and when you finally end up in the concert hall, the freshness has gone.  You say you heard it on a CD and it sounds much better, or you heard so-and-so sound much better, and we’ve gotten to the game of comparing performances rather than being involved with the music itself.  The performance has become more important than the music.  As I said before, a really good piece will stand up rather well under less-than-good performances if that has to be.  But if I go to the concert only to compare Mr. So-and-so’s performance with someone I heard on the radio yesterday, then I’m going to the concert for the wrong reasons.  Most composers don’t write for that reason.  We write to move, and to touch, and to communicate with others, and I don’t really want people to worry about whether this performance of my piece is better than another performance.  I want them to be involved with my music.

BD:   Let me ask the big philosophical question, then.  What is the purpose of music in society?

GS:   I don’t know if I can answer that, but like all art, it has to do with things spiritual, with things that are beyond just working, and eating, and sleeping, and making love.  It’s part of the spiritual realm of man, which makes us different from animals.  It’s the things we experience with a spirit rather than just with our body and our senses.

BD:   In concert music, such as that we’ve been talking about, where is the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

GS:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t really understand the ‘entertainment value’ part of your question.  If I go to a concert, I assume I’ll be entertained in the sense that my attention is held.  I will have an enjoyable experience, and even with a piece that I reject, or don’t like, or a performance that really turns me off, I still think I’m being entertained because my critical faculties are being entertained.  I’m being stimulated to form a judgment.  At best I’ll be moved.  I don’t understand the words ‘entertainment value’, frankly.

BD:   Well, does entertainment belong in the concert hall?

GS:   There are different kinds of entertainment, and the concert hall is as much entertainment as exposure to other forms of art in the highest sense.  There are some kinds of entertainments that are more surface-entertainment, when you laugh or cry for half an hour, or an hour, and then forget about it.  Hopefully, the effect of a concert experience might be more lasting, but I don’t want to put value on it.  It is just different.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Over the years you’ve had many reviews of your music.  What do you think is the role of the music critic?

GS:   That’s a big subject.  Quoting Virgil Thomson, the role of the music critic should be, first of all, to report objectively as to what happened.  Number two, the music critic should be able to at least convey what he or she felt during the performance, and be well enough educated to be able to evaluate a performance.  I find that a lot of music critics let their own particular preferences govern their review too much, and that’s where the reporting angle is neglected.  I recently did Till Eulenspiegel here, and I got a review which said that I had sadly neglected the poetic aspects of the work.  Well, the Till Eulenspiegel that I know and that I see in the score has some very whimsical places in it, but I don’t think it’s a particularly poetical work.  It’s a satiric work, a sardonic work, and the music is that.  The love music is satirical, the ‘once upon a time’ music is just that, it’s very short.  I listened last night to the tape of that performance, and I tried to find where the poetry was missing.  I must say I listened to it as if were somebody else’s performance, and I thought it was a very stimulating and exciting performance.  The premise of the critic was wrong to look for a great deal of poetry in that particular piece.  I don’t think it’s in the piece, so either the critic didn’t know the piece as well as he might know it, or he had listened to performances that might not have emphasized what I feel is in the music.  It’s a very difficult thing to write what I consider to be an objective review, but to inject a mythical element to a performance of a piece that really doesn’t contain that element is a terrible mistake.  The impression was given to people that read this article that we did a dry performance, a non-poetic performance of a piece that should have had a lot of poetry in it.  Well, it’s not that kind of piece!  That’s why accurate reporting, first of all, is very important.  Otherwise, nothing much can come out of it.

samuel BD:   You’ve conducted a number of recordings of other peoples
works.  Are you pleased with those?

GS:   [Thinks a moment]  Oh, some.

BD:   [Surprised]  Only some???

GS:   Well, things happen.  For instance, I did a recording of Henry Brant’s Kingdom Come, way back with the Oakland Symphony and the Oakland Youth Symphony Orchestra, and I was not happy with the recording because I felt the composer got in the way.  I can say this because Henry knows that I feel that way about it!  [Both laugh]  He had some idea of how the thing should be engineered, which I think was a complete mistake, and the result is not very good.  It’s a piece for two orchestras, and he had the idea that one orchestra should come out of one speaker, and the other should come out of another speaker.  Of course, that just completely destroyed the whole spatial idea which the piece has.  It sounded wonderful in the hall, having the sounds coming from all over the place, and it sounded very dry and awful on the recording.  On the other hand, the recording of Lou Harrison’s Symphony on G with the Royal Philharmonic [shown at right] came out very well.  Most of the recordings worked very well.  One is little bit at the mercy sometimes of engineers, of course.

BD:   Now in Brant’s case, he’s the composer.  Does he not know how to achieve his goals?

GS:   It was his theory, and he was convinced he was right, so it
s not a question of laying blame, but he didn’t know as much as the engineers knew!  Since he was very insistent on having it his way, we all gave in.  It didn’t work to his benefit in the end, and I’m sorry because the piece is much better than it sounds on the record.

BD:   Let me turn it around...  There are recordings that you have made of your music.  Are you pleased with those?

GS:   Yes, they’re all right.  I think they’re okay...

BD:   [WIth a gentle nudge]  That’s sort of a mild appreciation.

GS:   Well, I think they’re fine, yes.

BD:   I have two of them...  Are these the only two that are out?  [At the time of the interview in 1988, these were all that were available.  Since then, several others have been issued.]

GS:   What have you got?

BD:   I have What of my Music, and Sun-Like.

GS:   Yes, right now that’s all there is.

BD:   Are there others that have been out on commercial records that are deleted?

GS:   I think Sun-Like has gone already.  [LP jacket is shown farther up on this webpage.]  I was just in touch with Orion, and they’ve reopened offices in New York, and hopefully they will reissue it.  It’s very hard to get recordings of your music as it’s very expensive.  I’m negotiating right now for another recording, and hopefully that will happen.  I’ve been trying to get some of my big orchestral works recorded, but they’re very hard to bring about.

BD:   How can we get more enlightened managements of orchestras, and boards of directors of record companies?

GS:   One thing that has to do with enlightening is the money.  Most of the record companies just don’t have the money to invest in something that isn’t going to sell extremely well, and new pieces probably don’t sell very well unless there’s a tremendous promotion campaign, or unless you’re lucky enough to get played by many, many orchestras.  I always thought that my Requiem for Survivors should have been recorded.  [This work is included on the CD shown near the top of this webpage.]  It’s been done by many orchestras
New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and in Europe in many other placesand it’s a piece that rather well known.  But it’s been very difficult to interest recording companies in doing it.  It’s a hard game, and I’m not particularly fantastic about promoting myself, so that has something to do with it.  It’s the amount of time it takes to do that, quite frankly.
BD:   Sure, you’re too busy making the music!

GS:   Right.  I need somebody to help me.

BD:   A press agent or something?

GS:   Well, something I suppose.  It doesn’t matter.  I’ve got good publishers.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

GS:   Of music???  Well, of course!  There’ll always be music, and there’ll always be good music and bad music, and it’ll change.  As long as there are people on this this earth there’s going to be music, and there’ll basically be a variety of it.  If we start making music nobody likes, then they’ll go back to making music that people like.  It controls itself, and there’s only a certain amount that survives.  Think of the hundreds of composers that were living in Vienna at the time of Beethoven and Mozart, of whom we don’t hear anything anymore.  Time usually weeds out the best stuff.  Some things get lost sometimes, and forgotten, but I have great confidence that the good music will survive.

BD:   Should the concert music that you’re writing, or that is being written by various other people today, be for everyone?

GS:   No, I don’t think so at all.  Very few things are for everyone.  There are so many different kinds of people, with different tastes and different needs.  Art is not something which is very democratic.  It’s elitist, and just as a lot of people don’t like hard rock, many people don’t like so-called concert music.  That’s fine, and to try and write music that pleases absolutely everybody would be a terrible mistake.  We can’t design a dress that every woman wants to wear, and we can’t design a house that everybody wants to live in.  So, why should we write music that everybody likes?

BD:   Isn’t that what they’re trying to do in the pop field, though?

GS:   Yes, and there’s some that’ll last forever, and some that is very bad and doesn’t last, even from good people.  If you look back on what we call jazz, it was great to survive.  There are a lot of people playing jazz, and there are greats whose music has not survived, or whose records have not survived.  Of course, everybody tries to please as many people as possible.  But with the pop market being so much bigger than the concert market, automatically and through the promotion you’ll have more people exposed to it.  But don’t forget that a lot of that stuff isn’t listened to sitting down in a chair in a concert hall.  The whole approach to it is much different.  You can dance to it, or you do something else while it’s going on.  Except at Rock concerts, people very rarely actually go to some place and sit down to listen to it.  So the premise is different, and I have no quarrel with it.  But I do find that we have to understand that art is elitist, and it’s elitist because there are so many different people all over the world.  For me to go to the Sudan and expect that they will immediately be touched by Mozart is ridiculous.  They have their own culture.  If I listen to Sudanese music, I will not understand it.  I’ve not been educated in that particular language.  To understand it shows the difference which is inside Western culture.  The whole thing is the same in the Sudan.  They have pop music and they have serious music, and maybe the serious music, or concert music, will appeal more to all of their needs.  The situation is the same all over.


BD:   So then you feel that the old adage, that
music is the universal language, is really not correct?

GS:   Oh, it is because music is universal, but there are many, many different kinds of music.  But to say that music we produce in the west doesn’t necessarily appeals to the music in the east, and vice versa, doesn’t make any sense.  We were talking about cultural differences.  Because music is spoken in many different languages, I don’t think that a particular music is universal, but music as a human expression is universal.  It’s just that they are different languages, so they make different music.  There is no universal spoken language, either.  Music is universal, and dance is universal.  Many things are universal, but do you know how many different dances there are, or how many different art forms or architecture types there are?  We all deal with these concepts and these aspects of art, but in different parts of the world, they are different.  Feeling for that kind of expression is universal, and the need for it is universal.  Hopefully, that is what is meant by
music is the universal language.  It is in the higher sense, and not in the specific sense.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re a professor of music in Cincinnati.  What exactly do you teach
theory and composition, or history, or what?

GS:   I’m the Director of Orchestral Activities.  We have two orchestras, one of which I conduct, the other one I supervise.  The one I conduct is extremely good.  As a matter of fact, we’ve been invited to the big Mahler Festival in Paris next Spring.  We’re also going to London to make some recordings.  We are constantly broadcast on NPR, so I do a lot of conducting.  I also have a Contemporary Music group, the New Music Ensemble, and I’m involved in the opera productions.  I also teach conducting.  I have a conducting class which is small, with very good students, and I spend a lot of time with them.  There are seminars, conducting other orchestras, supervising performances, private lessons, etc.  
I also have a the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, which is a professional group.

samuel BD:   You say you’re involved in the opera productions.  Are you conducting these?

GS:   Yes.

BD:   Then my question is how are the voices coming along today?  Are they as good, or better, or worse than the voices that we have on the main stages today, or even yesterday?

GS:   Oh, we have wonderful voices.  There are a lot of wonderful voices around, and we have very good teachers here.  Every year we seem to place two or three winners into the Met.  We did a production of Zemlinsky’s Chalk Circle [Kreiderkreis] last May, which won a big national opera award.  It was an American premiere, and we’ve done quite a number of those.  It was a very exciting production, with a good stage director, wonderful singers, and I loved my orchestra.  We had a wonderful time.

BD:   How do you get the singers to learn parts that, admittedly, they probably will not sing again, when they’d rather learn the Romantic parts that they’ll sing over and over?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Harold Blumenfeld, and Charles Kondek.]

GS:   We do both.  We have opera studios and opera workshops, and I’m doing Così Fan Tutte in a couple of months.  But a lot of these singers are in an opera house when these things are done, so they’re ahead of their colleagues.  The Met is not typical of what’s happening in opera in this country.  There are a lot of small opera companies that are very good, that do very exciting new things, such as Milwaukee, or St. Louis.  Those of our singers who end up in Europe do a lot of new stuff in addition to the traditional things.  They all got stretched and learn a lot, and certainly did a fantastic job.  Besides, we’ve got to go ahead.  We can’t live in the past.  Where would new music be if we didn’t perform it?  Where would the performers be if they didn’t know how to do the new music?  We have a good balance here of old and new.  We’ve never had any singer say,
“Oh, I don’t want to do this!  They all feel very challenged by it.  We don’t only do Twentieth Century opera, but occasionally we do.

BD:   You’re working with students at various levels on various matters.  I assume that the technical proficiency is continuing to grow over the years?

GS:   Yes, it’s very good.

BD:   Then is the musical ability and the musical understanding also continuing to grow?

GS:   Not necessarily.  A lot of it has to do with where they were before they came to us, and it’ll always be that way.  We have students who come from very good teachers, and very good backgrounds, that have also been exposed to really thinking about music in more than just performance-terms.  We also have those lots and lots that haven’t been exposed to that, depending on where they come from.  We also have a big problem in that we have very, very good performers from the Far East
from mainland China, Korea, and Japan.  Especially the mainland Chinese people have a problem because they haven’t really been brought up with western culture.  So, everything is a little out of context, and it’s harder for them to bring to a performance of Mozart or Brahms or Stravinsky, or the kind of cultural knowledge that we would automatically have through reading, and knowing paintings, and knowing the history of choreography, etc.  We have to work very hard in different ways with people from other cultures to imbue them with a sense of style.  Fortunately, most of these people are used to working much harder than Americans are, and they’re much more work-orientated than most American kids.  It doesn’t mean that they are better people, but their work habits are more rigorous than Americans, so it’s easier for them to catch up with some of that.  But it is difficult, and we’re all trying very hard to make people understand that you cannot interpret or play a work on a violin unless you can put it into some cultural context.

BD:   You’ve conducted young people and old people from all over the world.  How do the audiences react differently from, say, Europe to America, to various old pieces or new pieces?

GS:   I don’t know whether I can remark on that.  It depends on where you’re playing, and on your what concert series you are appearing on.  It has enthusiastic and unenthusiastic responses that will turn on and not turn on audiences.  Whether you find a great variety of people depends on what kind of series you conduct on.  A very traditional crowd might not take to new music, or a very avant-garde crowd isn’t particularly interesting in hearing old music.  There are so many different theories, and sometimes it’s very surprising how people react to things.  When it comes to older music, I try to stay away from doing things that everybody hears all the time, because it’s important to have a fresh experience.  When we play music that is fresh, then you’re likely to have a much better reaction.  If you look at the wallpaper all day long, when somebody asks you to describe you can’t because you’ve looked at it so much.  [Both laugh]  I have done experiments with asking people very specific questions about famous pieces
like a Beethoven Symphonyand found out they couldn’t answer.  They said that they knew the piece cold, inside out, because they heard it all the time.  Then you ask them some very specific questions about the musican area of a particular movementand they can’t respond because they’ve heard it too much.

BD:   So they’ve got back off and get away from it in order to come at it fresh?

GS:   Right, exactly.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I want to come back to the two recordings of your music, and ask you a little bit about each one, if I may.  Tell me about Sun-Like.  It’s scored for soprano, three saxophones, percussion, piano, celesta and string quartet.  Why that particular combination?

samuel GS:   First of all, so often these things are dictated by what there is.  I wrote this piece when I was at CalArts, and we had these marvelous sax players.  So, the idea of that color interested me very much.  We also had wonderful percussion players.  The text suggested to me a high voice from the beginning.  Some of the Mozart quotes I have in the piece needed strings, and I needed the piano for certain melodic percussion effects that I couldn’t get out of the percussionists I had.  So, it’s a variety of reasons why one puts together what one puts together.  I wouldn’t have written a piece for three saxophones if I hadn’t known we would have these marvelous saxophonists.  It was written for a specific occasion.

BD:   Does that make it difficult to get second and third performances?

GS:   Oh, sometimes, but I love the piece, and so be it!  [Both laugh]

BD:   So you’re pleased with the way it came out?

GS:   Yes, I like the piece very much.  The only thing that I would probably do different if I had to do it again
which I won’tI might not have used the piano.  It’s all right, but I think there are other solutions to that.

BD:   You won’t rescore it as an alternate version?

GS:   No, I’m not interested.  I have new ideas about other things now, so I’d rather do that.

BD:   The other piece is What of my Music, again a vocal work for soprano and thirty-six string basses [shown at right].

GS:   The basses came first!  At that time, Barry Green who was first bass in the Symphony, and also teaches at the college conservatory, was the President of the International Society of Bassists [founded in 1967 by Gary Karr], and every summer they have lots of bassists running around here.  One day Barry said to me, “You know, we don’t have any repertoire for that many basses.  We’re always playing transcriptions.  Would you be interested in writing a piece for thirty-two basses?” and I said, “Yes.  It would have an incredible sound, and is a fun idea.”  Knowing full well that this piece wasn’t going to get many performances, I still felt that it was something that everybody wanted to do.  The more I started thinking about it, the more I thought I wanted to add something to that, and so the percussion and the voice were included.  Once I had decided on that, I was thinking of works and poetry that would fit into it, and Emily Dickinson poems certainly did.

BD:   Are you surprised it got recorded, instead of a straight symphonic work of yours?

GS:   No.  I will tell you how that happened.  As you remember, on the other side of the record there’s a piece that I conduct for eighty-two trombones by Henry Brant.

BD:   Right, Orbits.

GS:   I was out in California conducting a concert when one of my former trombone players from the Oakland Symphony came backstage and very dryly said “How would like to conduct a piece for eighty trombones?”  I thought it was a big joke, and I said, “Ha, ha, ha!  Of course!”  He said, “Well, we’ve got one coming up in February!” and it turned out that the Society of Trombone Players
at the time it was called the Bay Boneshad commissioned Henry Brant to write this piece.  They only had forty trombonists, but they decided they could get people from all over the country because it was such an extraordinary project.  So one thing led to another, and I ended up conducting that piece in San Francisco and recording it.  Indeed, we had gotten first trombone players from many, many orchestras from all over the country to come for a long weekend to prepare the concert and make recording.  CRI had already agreed to do that, and we were thinking what to put on the other side, and I said, “Next summer I’m going to do this piece for thirty-two basses, and that seems another unusual combination of instruments.  They usually don’t play in such huge numbers!”  They were very interested in that, so we made arrangements.  The local radio station here, WGUC, provided the engineers, and they made an awfully good tape of it.  They sent it to CRI, and they accepted it.  They were very happy with it, and so that’s how the record came out as it is.  There are all sorts of unpredictables that make life fun.

BD:   Sure!  Is composing fun?

GS:   Oh, yes, I love it.  It’s hard, and sometimes it gets frustrating.  You think you’ve run out of ideas, and hope you don’t.  Sometimes, just to get oneself to sit in front of that piece of paper and do it in the morning takes a bit of effort.  But then I usually find that once I’m sitting in front of the piece of paper, things start to happen.  It’s fun in the sense that it’s very challenging, but, of course, it can be very frustrating.  Sometimes one gets stuck, or you have to redo something.  Things don’t flow easily every day, but some days they flow wonderfully.  It’s not an easy process, but it’s an exhilarating process.

BD:   One last question.  As you approach your 65th birthday, what is perhaps the most surprising, or interesting, thing that you’ve noted about music in that time?

GS:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know how to answer that.  Is this about music in our time?

BD:   Well, you can answer it in any way you like.  What is something that has piqued your fancy about old music, or new music, or conducting, or composing?

GS:   The most amazing thing, first of all, is that I’ve never gotten tired of it.  I’m constantly learning new things.  I’m learning how to listen to old music with new ears, and I have more of an understanding of new music than I had twenty years ago.  I listen differently, and I’ve experienced more.  There are a lot of things one can get tired of during a lifetime, and I just find that my love of music has never bored me in any shape or sense.  It’s been a wonderful bridge, and a wonderful way to communicate with other people either through performance for them, or performing with them, or teaching them to perform.  It’s always fresh for me, and sometimes when I think about it, I say, “Wow!’”  I think of all things I’ve gotten tired of, but that’s one thing I haven’t.  Maybe that’s the most astounding thing.

BD:   I hope you continue to not get tired of it!  [Both laugh]

GS:   Oh, I don’t think I will ever tire of it!  Someday we’ll meet in person.

BD:   I hope so.

GS:   I hope so, too!

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.  I look forward to putting your music on the air.

GS:   Thank you.  I really appreciate you asking me to do this interview.

BD:   It’s my pleasure.


See my interviews with William Kraft, and Alan Hovhaness


© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone in mid-November, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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