Composer / Conductor Gerhard
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
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
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
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
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
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
— certainly 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
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.
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 done — which
we did — and 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?
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.
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 expect
— on 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
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
GS: Yes, most of them.
BD: Are you the ideal interpreter of your
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 performance
— do 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”?
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
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?
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
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?
GS: To show that you’re really very
good before you start because there are too many of us. It’s a difficult
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’
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
BD: Well, does entertainment belong in the
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.
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
GS: Yes, they’re all right. I think
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
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 places — and 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
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
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
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.
BD: You say you’re involved in the opera productions.
Are you conducting these?
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
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 Symphony
— and 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
music — an area of a particular movement
— and they can’t respond because they’ve heard it too
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
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
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’t
— I 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
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 Bones
— had 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.
© 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.
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.
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.
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