Composer Howard Sandroff
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Howard Sandroff (born October 28, 1949 in Chicago, Illinois)
is an American composer and music educator.
Sandroff studied at the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University
and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His composition instructors
included Robert Lombardo
and Ben Johnston.
He has received composition and research fellowships from the National
Endowment for the Arts, the University of Chicago and the Yamaha Music
Foundation. He worked as a conductor and director of Chicago's New Art
Ensemble, and is a lecturer in music at the University of Chicago, and directs
the university's Computer Music Studio. He is also a professor of Audio
Arts & Acoustics at Columbia College Chicago.
In 2009, Pierre
Boulez invited Sandroff to attend the dedication of the new IRCAM
facility at the Centre Georges Pompidou. His composition Tephillah,
for clarinet and computer, was performed at the dedication by Alain Damiens,
clarinetist with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Sandroff has collaborated
with clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, performing Boulez's 1985 work for clarinet
and electronics, Dialogue de l'ombre double.
Among Sandroff's compositions are works for solo instruments, chamber
music ensembles, and orchestra, often incorporating live or recorded electronic
music. His works have been performed throughout the world in concerts
and festivals such as New Music America, Aspen Music Festival, New Music
Chicago, the International Computer Music Conference, the Smithsonian
Institution, and the World Saxophone Congress.
== Names which are links in this box and below
refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
Living and working in Chicago, Howard Sandroff knew my radio
station (WNIB, Classical 97) and my special programs very well. We
met in April of 1993, and portions were broadcast a couple of times. Now,
it pleases me to give the entire conversation new life on this webpage.
At one point, our discussion almost became a full-blown argument.
While it didn’t
result in fisticuffs, it was rather heated, and I was glad we understood
each other deep down.
As we were setting up to record, he mentioned that he had
been accused by someone of being a lunatic . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: [With a wink] Are you a lunatic?
Howard Sandroff: [Smiles] I don’t
think of myself as lunatic at all, but others might.
someone who is working in electronic music as much as acoustic music
be considered not exactly mainstream?
Sandroff: [Tongue-in-cheek] I consider
myself exactly mainstream. I suppose the term ‘schizophrenia’
is somewhat accurate. I work and befriend machines, and I find
they’re generally a better class of people than most people I know.
BD: Are you talking about people or performers?
BD: So you want to be in complete control?
[Vis-a-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with
Elliott Carter, Steve Reich, and David Robertson.]
Sandroff: Not always. When I want
to be in complete control, I want to be in complete control.
BD: [Gently protesting] But the
machine cannot insert any kind of interpretation whatsoever.
Sandroff: Right, and when so I want interpretation,
then I appreciate the collaboration with another artist. So,
there are two sides of me, and they’re both equally militant. Fortunately,
they don’t cross, and they don’t get confused, which is probably one
reason that a lot of my works are electronics, or computer-with-an-instrument.
That way I have control over what I do, and the performers are
allowed to interpret. Although, I have to say that my works sort
of play themselves, or at least I construct them to play themselves in
so far as formally the works are very foreign to performers. What
interests me is the divergence of structure. So many Twentieth Century
works are basically Nineteenth Century formal structures with Twentieth
Century materials poured inside of them. This has interested me for
the twenty years, but I’ve been more successful with it in the last twelve
or thirteen years. I have been trying to find different ways to
formalize the work, or organize the work. Consequently, performers
are often perplexed, even the ones that are very experienced with contemporary
BD: You want more than just new wine in
an old bottle?
Sandroff: Yes, which is how I view most
of what’s happened with Twentieth Century European and American music,
just as you phrased it, new wine in old bottles.
BD: That disappoints you in others’
Sandroff: When it’s done very well, it
never disappoints. When a work is well conceived and well rendered,
and moves you in some way, then obviously it never disappoints.
But for my own work, I’m not drawing value judgments about other people’s
works directly. It’s for myself. It does not interest me to
continue the rut of the Nineteenth Century sonata, which is the idea of
the dramatic development of music and sound over time, following some kind
of dramatic form.
BD: Are you putting new wine in new bottles,
or are you putting a different substance into a completely different
kind of container?
Sandroff: I’m not sure that I can describe
it quite that way. What I discovered was that the container
was not a separate entity from the wine, so to speak. In my younger
days, what I tried to do was create formal structures that were somehow
isolated from the material. I attached to them flow charts and
schematic diagrams where I was seeking the idea of a new way of formalizing
things. I looked at Eastern literature, for instance, figuring
that since the sonata was rooted in the Nineteenth Century dramatic development,
perhaps there might be some ideas to be found when looking at other types
of dramatic performance. So, I read lots of poetry, and I read
a lot literary works from the East — the
Orient — because their way of
organizing things is drastically different. I also looked at film
because, as an art form, when it’s done very, very well, it takes advantage
of the Nineteenth Century idea of development, something that you couldn’t
do so easily in a story or a novel.
BD: Since you generally abandoned the Nineteenth
Century ideas, have you taken them further and in a different direction?
Sandroff: The one key idea which is the
germ for all of this is that a piece of material must show its own development,
and I have abandoned that. When I realized that the flow charts
and the schematics weren’t working, what finally hit me one day, and
with one particular piece, was that the problem was I was treating the
material with a Nineteenth Century musician’s brain. Therefore,
no matter what I did with the structures, no matter how different the
flow charts were, no matter how different I organized the introduction,
development, and recapitulation, it always ended up sounding like introductions,
developments, and recapitulations. It wasn’t until I realized that
you had to treat the material differently before it came up with something
else. So, throughout the next ten-year period, I worked very hard
on developing different ways of treating the material, and so the resulting
formal structures never ever fit the concept of development in the body
of the work, because I never worked with things that are developed.
They are never developing. They may be mutating, or they may be
altering themselves, but we never encounter a situation for any long
period of time whereby a musical idea is going through an incremental
change, where it’s starts some place and ends some place, and that the
ending is dependent upon you hearing the beginning. That idea of
development I’ve rejected.
BD: Is this something you found growing
out of the music — that you
had to reject the ideas — or
did you reject the ideas first and see whether the music goes?
Sandroff: It was that I rejected the ideas
first. It was an enlightenment. One day, back in the early
’80s where, all of a sudden it occurred to me
what I was doing wrong, and it was that I was continually using the compositional
techniques that had been taught to me. I then realized that the
only way I was going to get out of this bag that I was in
— and, from my perspective, a bag that all Twentieth
Century music was in — was if I simply
rejected the idea of development. Of course, then it became problematic
with whatever I replaced it with. It was a lot easier to reject
development than it was to find something to replace it with, but I’m
comfortable now that I’m on the right road.
BD: I was going to ask if you liked what
you’ve come up with.
Sandroff: I’ve liked what I’ve come up
with — not always, but I would
say that the most recent work is very successful in that it’s satisfies
my mind. I set out to achieve something specific, and I think
I did. It doesn’t satisfy me to the point that I don’t want
to compose anymore, because the motivation to compose must come out of
some dissatisfaction with what you do. If you ever write the
perfect piece, there’s no reason to write another one.
BD: Not even to get another perfect
Sandroff: No. One can only reach
perfection once, and fortunately none of us ever do. So, we
don’t have to worry about that.
BD: Can we strive for different kinds
Sandroff: [Thinks a moment] I don’t
know. Those are questions left for philosophers. I’m not
going to tackle that one.
BD: Let me ask you one philosophical question.
What is music?
Sandroff: Varèse said it best.
Paraphrasing, he said that music was the intelligence within sound.
It is a sense of the organization of that which is not visual, and
that which is not literary or language-based. In many ways, music
is a much more primeval kind of expression because it’s always abstract.
It exists as an abstract, and never is anything else.
BD: Are you are going as far away from
primeval as you can in the rejection of the old forms?
Sandroff: Then you’re making the assumption
that the old forms are somehow a more complete route. It’s
a passing point in music.
BD: Well, not necessarily complete route,
but certainly a route. [Vis-à-vis the recording shown
at left, see my interview with M. William Karlins.]
Sandroff: A route, one of many possible
routes. If you examine the fugal works of the great Baroque composers,
there is that structure, or the thing that people will call ‘fugue’.
It’s not really a formalized structure, rather it’s simply a method
for treating materials. The works are organic in that the organization
through time grew out of the treatment of the materials. The
sonata as a concept doesn’t happen until later, and is fleeting in
the sense that it occupies a small period of time. It just so
happens that the period of time it occupies is the period of time that
we pay the greatest attention to in music, the Nineteenth and the Eighteenth
Centuries. So it dominates that particular period, but certainly
doesn’t dominate music outside that period, or music outside this
very, very narrow geographic area we call ‘Western Civilization’,
which we also tend to say embodies the Great Achievements of Man.
We ignore everything else. So, if you think about it, we’re paying
a great deal of attention to a culture that’s removed geographically
by thousands of miles, and time-wise by a couple of hundred years. We’re
saying, in our own egocentric way, that this era is the pinnacle of
man’s achievement, and everything that’s come before it is, with a few
exceptions, not worth bothering with, and anything that comes after it
isn’t worth bothering with, again with a few exceptions. Anything
that’s outside that realm isn’t worth bothering about, and we venerate
the artists that lived within that period, and those that practiced those
forms. [Pointing to a pile of recordings] There it is, stacked
across the room. You’ve got it right there, all encoded...
BD: ...on round flat discs!
Sandroff: Onto round flat pits, burned
into the pieces of plastic, and as near as we can tell, it’ll be there
BD: As long as the plastic holds out.
BD: Do you consider yourself something
of a musical astronaut? You’ve blasted away from the old sphere,
and you’ve gone into parts unknown, and you have no idea what it’s
going to be, or how it’s going to work.
Sandroff: I don’t know. I must
confess to you, Bruce, that I don’t spend a lot of time labeling myself
in that way. I don’t consider myself to be an avant-garde composer
in the sense of whatever ‘avant-garde’
means. That term has lost its meaning.
BD: I’m asking you to take a step back
momentarily, and look at what you’ve done, to see the kind of thing
that you have made, whether it’s a masterpiece or a mess.
Sandroff: [Thinks a moment] What I
do is unique, but then every artist must believe that what they do
is unique. On the surface, one might listen to my works and say,
“Oh! That’s another modernist!” and in many ways that is true.
But I feel a much greater kinship with Varèse than I do with
Cage. I feel much
greater kinship with Debussy than I do with Ravel.
BD: It sounds like you’ve consciously
cut yourself off from nearly everyone else.
Sandroff: Yes, I like that.
BD: Are you carving something new out
Sandroff: I’d like to believe that I have.
Certainly, not having friends would mean that I’ve cut myself off,
and in many ways I don’t participate in the Circle of Composers.
I’ve removed myself for the most part of the community here in Chicago.
BD: Are you trying to make friends of
the audiences that come to hear your pieces?
Sandroff: No, not particularly.
BD: I hope you don’t want to drive them
Sandroff: No, not particularly, but that’s
not my concern. I don’t want to be arrogant about it, but that
shouldn’t be an artist’s concern. Art is about expressing oneself.
If an audience or a person is moved by what I do, it’s just enormously
gratifying. If they’re horrified by what I’m doing, I’m probably
saddened, but I can’t let that affect what I do. If my work speaks
to no one but me, then there must be something wrong with me.
In that case, I would admit that there’s clearly something wrong with
me. But if my work only speaks to a few people and misses the majority,
then maybe there’s something wrong with the majority. My goal is
not to reach a wide audience. If my goal was to entertain and reach
a wider audience, I would have picked a more accessible form.
BD: Rock music?
Sandroff: Or something. Who knows
what? I don’t know. Clearly, as a musician there’s certainly
a lot of things I could be doing that would appeal to a wider audience.
I’m not in this for that purpose. It’s self-gratification on some
level, and it’s narcissistic on another level. It’s a response to
some deep-seated obsession, and I just do what it is I do. When
other people are touched by it, I’m just ecstatic, and when they’re not,
BD: And you’re not?
Sandroff: And I’m not, right. It just
goes on, and I don’t attempt to make a living from it. I’m not
proselytizing with it. I’m simply saying this is what I do. I
think it has value, and I believe in it. I hope you do, too, but
if you don’t, then go forth and find something that you can believe in.
If you do believe in it, that’s terrific. Let’s do it again sometime.
One has to be rational about all of this. As soon as you get an
overly-inflated ego about what it is you do, think for a moment... If
you stop doing what you do for thirty days, and then think if the sanitation
workers stop doing what they do for thirty days, which one is going
to have a much greater impact on life in general? Although we
can aspire to heights, and say it is a very, very important human expression
— maybe even the most important human
expression — the creation of music
does not come close to the piles of garbage that would lie in the street,
and the necessity for its removal.
BD: Do you consciously try to make sure
that you are not contributing to the piles of garbage?
Sandroff: I consciously make sure that
I’m not contributing to the piles of garbage, which is evident by the
fact that there are really very few works.
* * *
BD: When you’re working on a piece, and
you’re tinkering with it, and getting the electronic sounds the way
you want, and you’re getting the notation the way you want, how do
you know when it is finished and ready to be launched?
Sandroff: The piece tells you it’s finished.
As you work on a piece, if you are open to the feedback that you get
from it, there’s a point at which the work takes on a life of its own.
I can’t tell you objectively when that is. Part of the growing
process of a composer is to be able to identify that, and when I’m teaching,
I work very, very hard with my students so that they will understand when
their work is starting to take on a life of its own, because then you’ve
got to go with the work. At some point, it tells you it’s done,
and it sounds a little magical. It’s not exactly magical, but it’s
just that at one moment in time it existed completely in your brain.
There was a moment when the muse came and touched you, and at that moment
the work existed in its entirety, or graphically complete. Then
you start working on it, and that image just sort of dissipates, and gets
confused, and it is lost. You spend a great deal of time trying
to recapture that, and at some moment it’s recaptured.
BD: Do you work with it on the page, or are you simply
trying to transcribe what is in your brain onto the page and into
Sandroff: Both. It’s a very much
an inter-active kind of participation.
BD: So the end product won’t look like
or sound like what you thought it would originally be?
Sandroff: It never does.
BD: Is that good, or bad, or neither?
Sandroff: It’s probably good, although it’s
frustrating. It’s probably good in so far as the music doesn’t
sound like music in your brain. It’s a pre-verbal image, and even
though that word has the trappings of something visual, I only use the
word ‘image’ because there’s no other word to describe pre-verbal emotion.
It is something that you remember, something that you feel, something
that you taste, something that you hear, something that you see before
you have language to classify it as being something you saw, or tasted,
or heard, or felt.
BD: Is this some primordial kind of thing?
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews
with Robert Carl, and
BD: Then are you harking back to the ancients?
Sandroff: I think so. You have vague
memories in your life when you had no language. There’s at least
a year or two of life where you had no language. You couldn’t
communicate with speech, and therefore you couldn’t classify it.
It’s like starting something without a directory. You have no
language to remember with. The memory is there, but it’s not easily
retrieved or described. It’s not even easily remembered.
BD: Is this just for you, or is this for
mankind going back to the Stone Age?
Sandroff: I think it’s for everyone.
BD: Is it safe to say that you might have
more in common with a Stone Age Man than with the Nineteenth Century
Sandroff: No! What makes us all common
is language, and distinguishes us from other creatures. Perhaps
now we’re learning that other creatures have the capability of language
in a different way, or maybe in a similar way. But one thing
that binds human beings together is language, and the desire to express
themselves, and a very, very peculiar way of remembering their experiences.
It’s a different way of remembering. I’m not either a psychologist
or a scientist that deals with brain chemistry, but it’s fairly clear
that the act of having language changes the context and the way in which
you access and store your memory. That’s what’s common among humans,
and art is about accessing those thing in a way that is outside the realm
BD: Are you then creating new memories
Sandroff: Actually, I think what happens
is accessing whatever you got in your first two years, because after
that point, everything you remember has language attached to it. So,
whatever the expression is that you feel you need to share with paintings,
or with sculpture, or with some kind of dramatic movement, or with music,
is something you acquired or experienced in your first two years of life.
The frustration, and the task, and the challenge is to somehow access
that in a tangible way. It’s this desire to communicate to another
human being, and we hope that it accesses their preverbal memories.
It’s a very secondary effect.
BD: In rejecting the old structures, are
you rejecting the old language, or simply creating a new language of
Sandroff: Yes and no. The old structures
are as contrived as any other structure. They’re no more a direct
link to this pre-verbal memory than our new structures. They’re
all contrived. All art is contrived in that sense, so any particular
logical way of revealing things over time is as contrived as any other.
On some level, the sonata is as good as any way to use that structure.
I suppose my way of doing it is as good as any way. Any way is
as good as any other way. There are two separate issues.
I don’t reject the forms of the Nineteenth Century because I feel that
I am going to do it better, nor do I reject the forms of the Nineteenth
Century because I’m not interested. As an intelligent reasoning
person, it just doesn’t fascinate me anymore, and so these are really
two separate issues. You asked me what music was, and I was trying
to speak more globally about music. What I’m interested in, specifically,
is motivated by what I think music is, but also the things that interest
me. For whatever reasons, things that don’t interest me don’t motivate
me to create Twentieth Century sonatas, or Twenty-first century sonatas,
which the great bulk of American and European composers are, in fact, doing.
Certainly, the music that is most successful to intelligent and
experienced listeners — and that
would include the musicians who perform the works
— are clearly those works that fit into the category
of sonata. So if a musician can see and appreciate and understand
something about how the work reveals itself over time
— and that work is not so dissimilar to a Beethoven
quartet, or a Brahms symphony except for the materials
— then they have something to grab onto, and they
can express that. The professors like it, and the panels like it,
and the audiences like it, and the critics like it, and the radio broadcasters
like it because even though it’s different and it’s new, it’s like something
that they can identify with.
BD: So you’re asking the audiences to
learn how to grab onto something which is completely different?
Sandroff: Yes, and the performers, too.
Actually, more importantly the performers because they’re the ones who
must realize the work.
BD: [Trying to connect it all together] But
you said before that you don’t care if the audience can grab onto
these things, so obviously you’re not specifically putting handles
out for them.
Sandroff: For the work to be any good,
objectively you have to. ‘Handles’
is not the word I would choose, but the work must have a logic, and
that logic must be accessible in some way. If nobody understands
it, and nobody can understand it, then obviously it’s not understandable.
BD: You’ve got to be able to see it aurally?
Sandroff: Absolutely, and I tell my students
that, and it must happen within the first few measures, or the first
few seconds, or whatever time-frame you’re using. Then, the work
must continue to carry its entire syntax, it’s entire lexicon, it’s entire
context, and the system of logic which reveals how it works.
BD: That’s very ‘electronic’
to put all the data first, and then work with the data, rather than
allowing the data to be spread over the whole piece.
Sandroff: Yes, it is, isn’t it?
That doesn’t mean you only understand the work in the first few seconds.
It’s just that all the premises are there, so that what follows makes
sense, and what I call ‘imminently retrospective’.
That way you get there, and understand what’s happening at the beginning.
BD: You’re not writing for machines, are
you??? Do you want machines to understand it and enjoy it???
Sandroff: No! Machines don’t have
the capability of doing that.
BD: If you could make a machine that would
enjoy your music, would you make one?
Sandroff: No. I’m not interested.
Machines are just machines! People get really berserk these days
about machines. They’re simply tools, and they’re just newer to
us than the last set of tools. Tools are replaceable. The
only difference between now and a hundred years ago is that the newer tools
come at us a little faster.
BD: So a computer is really not much
different than our old hammer?
Sandroff: It’s different because the underlying
conception is different. It’s an information processing device,
the way in which you must use it is not different. They’re
stupid, they’re inanimate, they’re not to be feared or vilified,
or admired. They’re just to be used. What is admittedly troubling
is that you get the machine, and you bring it into your studio, and
by the time you get five seconds experience on it, it’s obsolete.
That’s bothersome. That’s irritating.
BD: Is music to be used like a tool?
Sandroff: No, I don’t think I said that.
No, not at all. It’s just that the machines may be used like
any other tool to make music. We’ve been making music on machines
forever. A violin is a machine. It’s a very complicated machine.
A piano is an extremely complicated machine.
BD: Then what about the notes on the page
which have to be used by the machine?
Sandroff: No, the notes on the page must
be interpreted by a human being using the machine.
BD: But if you get some kind of electronic
music, then we leave out the interpretation. Is that not making
a three-legged table?
Sandroff: No, no, no! If a composer
realizes a work using an electronic device, then he’s doing the interpretation.
It’s just that the distinction between composer and performer may
be gone. With works that exist in the composer’s
mind, or just electronically, I am the composer and the interpreter.
So, I’ve taken two jobs which were traditionally separate, and
put them together. But they’re not always separate. A composer
can realize their work at the piano if the composer is a pianist.
If the composer is a conductor, the composer can realize the work with
an orchestra. So in the case of doing electronic music, you’re
simply the composer and the realizer, or the interpreter.
BD: Are you then usurping the appreciator?
Sandroff: I’m not attempting to, , but
I think the economic system attempts to. Recordings are another
kind of mechanism that you use to search for the interpreter.
The record industry and the economics are attached to the concert.
Doesn’t the Chicago Symphony Orchestra management usurp the listener?
BD: Rather than usurping, it would be
more a case of selecting.
Sandroff: I’m not sure that there’s a
big difference. Maybe it’s a continuum.
You start off selecting, and then when you select an entity, perhaps
you’re usurping? I don’t know. It’s kind of curious.
BD: The concert management is not doing
it for us. They’re simply deciding which ones we can hear within
a limited framework of thirty concerts a year.
Sandroff: They decide which ones we ought
BD: Assuming that the possibilities would
be, say, a billion concerts a second, they’ve got to select it down
to thirty groups a year.
Sandroff: I wasn’t making a value judgment
on them. You have to do the same thing on the radio, right?
BD: Yes. We just have more opportunities,
since we’re on the air continuously.
Sandroff: So, you’re much more in a position
of altering the aesthetic than I am. [Both laugh] You have
a much greater possibility to shape the aesthetic than I have.
BD: But eventually, each one of your pieces
comes down to being on one of those thirty concerts, or part of that
Sandroff: Right! So you can choose
to make happen or not make happen. That way, you’re the creative artist,
BD: Okay, why should I make your concert
happen for my radio listeners?
Sandroff: Because people should hear different
things, including new stuff. That’s why you should. You
choose because you yourself have developed as listener, a very astute
listener, an educated listener. You have taste. You have
developed over time, and can understand music that you like, and music
that you don’t like.
BD: [Gently protesting] But I consciously
try to keep my tastes out of the mix as much as possible.
Sandroff: Oh, that’s absolutely impossible.
You may consciously try to, but it’s absolutely impossible because
you’re sensitive to many, many things.
BD: Considering the number of the pieces
that I hear for the first time when I play them on the radio, I can’t
have made many value-judgments.
Sandroff: That may be, but you have not
just your own tastes, but there is the station’s tastes. There’s
a programming policy of some kind, no doubt.
BD: But my policy is to find composers
who have some recordings, and give them their opportunity. Then
it’s their responsibility to speak or not to speak to the audience.
They do have to have some recordings. Otherwise, there would
be no program.
Sandroff: [Brightening] That’s the best
possible circumstance, but the mechanism is still there. First,
it has to make it to the recording. What about all those works
that haven’t made it onto a record yet?
BD: They’re potential.
Sandroff: Many, many works never do.
The mechanism is such that of all the works that are created, some
of them may be brilliant and wonderful experiences, but only the tiniest
percentage ever make it to the recording.
BD: Then those are missed opportunities.
Sandroff: Yes, they are missed opportunities.
When I speak, I’m not personalizing. I’m saying there is this
mechanism that is a filter, and it’s pretty narrow what comes out the
BD: Just as a sidebar, do you really think
there are undiscovered masterpieces languishing on library shelves?
Sandroff: Oh, absolutely!
BD: [Genuinely surprised] Really???
Sandroff: Yes. Would it bother you
to know that the greatest musician lived in the mid-Seventeenth Century,
and was an Aboriginal Australian? His audience was thirty members
of his tribe, and he lived a very, very long and creative life. For
a period of time, the musical expression of that group of people was
just absolutely extraordinary. Those people talked about their musicians
everywhere, but we never knew about him. So why aren’t there
undiscovered masterpieces in some other place? We make this outrageous
assumption that our own cultural thread is the only one that contains
masterpieces, and the masters that created them, and that it didn’t happen
anywhere else. Even more dangerous is that we make the assumption
that if it doesn’t come to the public eye in some way
— even in this massive age of incredible communication
— somehow it’s not worthy. Or, if we never
heard the composer’s name, or if the composer never won a prize, or if
the composer hasn’t distinguished himself, or graduated from the right
university, that somehow or other it can’t be any good. Therefore,
if it’s not on a record, then it can’t be, and that’s absurd. That’s
an ugly scenario. It’s a frightening scenario.
BD: There may be many threads, but this
is our thread, and we’re stuck with this thread because it’s our thread.
Sandroff: No, we don’t have to be stuck with
it! We choose to be stuck with it. I really sound like
an anarchist here, but we create these structures, like governmental
structures. We embody them with life, and then we blame them
for our problems, and we speak of them as if they were something totally
removed from us — ‘the government’,
‘the military industrial establishment’, ‘the university’. We
infuse them with a life as if we didn’t happen at all, and it’s out of
BD: ‘The musician?’
Sandroff: ‘The musician’! If you
don’t like what you hear, get up and walk out of the concert hall.
Don’t buy the records!
BD: [Trying to be hopeful] But then
go to another concert?
Sandroff: Maybe don’t go to any until
somebody makes or produces something in a concert hall that you want
BD: But how do you know you want to hear
it unless you keep going to concert halls to find it?
Sandroff: Word of mouth. Somebody will
make the mistake of walking in the door, and you find out from them.
We don’t have to be satisfied with the way things are, either as a
consumer, or audience, or creator. We don’t have to accept the
system, we simply don’t.
BD: Then, are you writing for people who
are dissatisfied with the system?
Sandroff: Oh, absolutely.
BD: Do you never want to reach those who
are satisfied with the old concerts?
Sandroff: I don’t think there’s anybody
BD: People keep going...
Sandroff: They go, but that doesn’t mean
anything. I pay my taxes but that doesn’t mean I’m satisfied
the way the government works.
BD: But aren’t
a lot of people happy to go to concerts?
Sandroff: There are a lot of people that
go to concerts because going to concerts is a thing that they do. They
may, indeed, like it, but that doesn’t mean they accept the whole
BD: There must be some people who like
living in Mozart, or living in Bach, or living in Varèse.
Sandroff: Sure. Well, perhaps.
There are also people that abuse children, and there are people that
cheat and steal, and there are people that do all kinds of anti-human
perverse things. It is perverse to close yourself off to a variety
of experiences. It is anti-life. A person who only listens
to Mozart closes himself off to Sammartini, or one of the other Bach
boys. This leads to a perverse existence. Maybe it’s
not as socially dangerous as somebody who murders, or robs and steals,
and abuses little children, but it is perverse nonetheless.
BD: [Trying to grasp this notion] Are
you not saying you are perverse by rejecting all of that in your music?
Sandroff: I didn’t reject that.
I never said that. I reject one aspect of it for my own experience.
When I’m down, and when I need spiritual uplifting, I listen to the
late Beethoven string quartets. I didn’t say that I reject this.
It’s part of my heritage. I said for my work I rejected this
aspect of it. There is a big difference. There’s a very,
very large difference, and I believe that most people are like me.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] Anarchists?
Sandroff: [Smiles] No... well, yes, of
a sort. I don’t really think of myself as an anarchist. I
just use that as a something to say to be somewhat controversial.
I’m not really an anarchist at all. I do all the things that I’m supposed
to go. I just don’t necessarily buy all the things that go with
it. I know the difference. I pay my taxes to the County and
to the Federal Government, but I don’t necessarily buy everything that
they do with that money.
BD: But you must feel that at least some
of your tax money is going to things that you do support.
Sandroff: Yes, some of them...
BD: ...like the garbage collection.
Sandroff: Like the garbage collection, and
parks for children, and schools. I don’t necessarily agree with
the way they even do that, but the point that I’m making is that I’m
don’t take a fatalistic view of it. I don’t just write out the check
and think there’s nothing I can do about it. I can vote!
I can get active politically. The musical system is this huge
ugly beast, and I don’t necessarily have to accept it. By virtue
of the fact that I might go to Orchestra Hall to hear a concert doesn’t
necessarily mean I buy the whole thing. I may turn on your radio
station because I want to hear something particular. I like the
sound of your voice, and I like your taste so I want to listen to your
program, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I buy all of your programming.
I’m a civilized anarchist! I’m a regulated anarchist.
I am a contained anarchist. Is that better? [Both have
a huge laugh] And I believe everybody is like that.
BD: Now there’s an oxymoron
— a regulated anarchist.
Sandroff: [Continues laughing] Well,
if you think about it for a second, that is what everybody is.
We all do it in our own way in very small doses. You get tired with
being put on one of those electronic hold systems...
BD: ...where you’re listening to Muzak...
Sandroff: Yes. Maybe if you want
to hear Mozart, press 1. If you want to listen to Beethoven, press
2. If you interested in the Handel Messiah, press 3.
[More laughter] People eventually hang up sometimes. They
say they don’t want to do this, so to hell with it, and they hang up.
So, everybody’s a controlled anarchist, and at some point they get fed
up with the way things are. Every four years we get fed up with
the government. Those people who are really fed up work for a new
candidate, or they vote, or they do something. A case in point was
what was happening before the compact discs came out. Record sales
were at an all-time low. The record industry was dying, and the
reason they were dying was people weren’t buying records. Why weren’t
they buying records? Because they didn’t find anything they wanted
to buy. They were fed up, and instead of the record industry responding
positively, and finding some music that will touch you, or move you, or
BD: ...they decided to re-package the
Sandroff: Yes, that’s what they did, and
people got victimized again. I think people know the difference,
and I have a much greater hope for humanity than most artists.
BD: So you’re optimistic about the future
Sandroff: I’m optimistic about the future
of humanity. The future of music, I’m not particularly optimistic
BD: Really??? You think music will
die even though humanity stays around?
Sandroff: I think that music won’t die.
It will just sort of be real sick for a very long time.
BD: A little atrophy?
Sandroff: Yes, exactly, a little atrophy.
BD: Are you part of the problem, or part
of the solution?
Sandroff: I’m probably neither. I know
I’m not part of the problem, and I’m probably not part of the solution.
BD: So what are you part of?
Sandroff: I’m just doing my own thing.
I’ve withdrawn from that aspect of it. I don’t have it in
my power to change the course of this mighty river, and basically my
solution is only for me. I don’t like what’s happening so I go upstairs
and make my own. If you don’t like the bread that’s on the shelf
of the supermarket, you go home to break bread. That doesn’t mean
you have to go into the bread business. You can make it just for
yourself, and that’s what I do. I make music for myself. I share
it with other people on occasion, and if it moves them that’s great. If
BD: Do you make the bread for a few friends?
Sandroff: No, I make it for myself. It’s
just that when the friends come over, I serve it to them. When
they ask where I got it, I say that I made it right here in the oven.
If they suggest that I ought to open a bakery and go into the bread
business, I say I really don’t want to do that. I’m perfectly
happy making it for myself. I’d be happy to give the recipe to
anybody that wants to come along. It’ll cost them, but it’s accessible.
BD: Would you be happy if someone takes
your bread and goes into the bread business with it?
Sandroff: No, that would disturb me to
no end. The problem is that this loaf is not going to be like
the next loaf, and if they wanted that they’d freeze this loaf. That’s
what would end up being mass-produced, and that’s why I would never write
down the recipe. I would not give it to anybody that way. Let
them come to my kitchen, and I’ll show them how I do it.
BD: [Pouncing on the connection] There,
now, you see! You’ve gone into electronics, so you’re not writing
down the recipe. There’s no score.
Sandroff: There is a score. It’s
just that the score is for this loaf of bread, and this loaf of bread
only. It won’t tell you anything about the next loaf of bread,
because that is going to be different. It has the same stuff in
it, but it’s a different loaf of bread. [Laughs] This is getting
to be a bizarre metaphor, because the implication is that bread is the
staff of life, and I’m not sure that music is like that. It is not
of the same impact.
BD: [Coming to music’s
defense] Is music not part of the food of life? A lot of
composers I talk with say that music is something that’s absolutely
necessary, like breathing and eating.
Sandroff: Those are people who are trying to
give greater credibility to what they do. It’s not as important
as eating. It’s not as important as breathing. It’s not
as important as the environment.
BD: Then what’s the point of music?
Sandroff: It is a diversion from the misery
of life. Like literature and art, it’s an individual expression
when we can afford to avail ourselves of it, or when we are not so busy
with the task of just basic survival. If you can’t pay your mortgage,
and you can’t feed your children, flipping on a compact disc isn’t
going to do much for that. It may misdirect your attention for
a period of time, but it’s not going to take the problem away.
There are very, very real human concerns, and very real human suffering
that is much more tied to survival, and music, despite what many musicians
would tell you, is not amongst those.
BD: Is it really in the luxury category?
Sandroff: Maybe there’s something between. Maybe
there are levels of necessity. I would not put it in the luxury
category, although it would appear to be, sometimes. It is a necessity
when one understands human being’s overwhelming desire to communicate,
once they have something to eat. You can’t say it is a necessity
or a luxury. There are many levels of necessity, and they’re all
parts of creation. All communications media are relative to necessity,
but they’re not as basic as those things which are survival, and survival
means food, air, water, shelter, love, companionship. Those are
survival things, and music is not there. But it certainly is not
at the other end of the spectrum with caviar, and fur coats, and Mercedes-Benz,
and big mansions. So no, I don’t believe that, and I’m not sure
that I ever did. Music is very, very important to me. Without
music I would die, but I’d die a lot faster without food and water and love.
Those are more important human things. We get very, very romantic
about creativity, and we get perverse about it on some level. It’s
what I do, but it’s not everything I am.
* * *
BD: You are both a composer and a teacher.
How do you divide your time between those two activities?
Sandroff: I teach as much as I have to, and
I compose whenever I feel like it. [Laughs]
BD: If you were relieved of the burden
of earning dollars, would you no longer teach?
Sandroff: No, no, I love teaching.
No, I would never no longer teach. I teach all the things that
I have to teach. I may take a slightly different view of it,
but I certainly would never stop it. There is an obligation that
we carry in Western music, and I’m a Western musician, so I fit into the
step, and it’s a real treat. I was a student of blah, blah, blah,
and my teacher’s teacher was Richard Strauss. I fall into this,
and part of being part of that continuum is taking from your teacher and
teaching it to your pupils. It is a part of everything. Every
musician learned from someone, and has an obligation. It comes
with the territory to teach it. It also happens to be a great source
of creative energy and joy and pleasure, and all kinds of other things.
But even if it weren’t that, it’s an obligation that you have, just like
the obligation of taking care of your children, and taking care of your
aged parents. There are obligations you have as a human being, and
being a musician-teacher is one of them. Any musician that somehow
manages to circumvent that should be ashamed of themselves.
BD: I trust you’re not teaching anarchy.
Sandroff: No! Well, yes... I’m
teaching them how to create anarchy, absolutely, sure. I wouldn’t
be a very good teacher if I didn’t.
BD: You don’t want lots of little Howard
Sandroffs running around?
Sandroff: Absolutely, not, no.
One’s too much. [Both laugh] Many of them would be absolutely
unbearable. Ask my wife!
BD: Is there a chance that we are training
too many young composers?
Sandroff: It depends on what exactly you mean
by ‘too many’.
If we were to say too many for the system to somehow make use of, or assimilate,
or create venues for, absolutely. There are far too many composers
than the system will be able to deal with. There’s far too much
music to be played. There are far too many composers to create
it, only because the system is just so very, very narrow.
BD: So the fault isn’t the composer, the
fault is the system?
BD: Okay, so we’re back to anarchy again.
Sandroff: Well, I suppose. Many of my
students hope for academic careers, and that’s hard, too. Very
hard. There are far too many people for the number of positions
that are open, so from that point of view, there are far too many composers
for the system to assume and give the opportunity to. On the other
hand, I believe everybody should be a composer, so everybody should study
composition, and everybody should compose. If it were just a matter
learning to be creative, there aren’t enough composers.
BD: Should they also learn to paint, and
Sandroff: Absolutely, absolutely.
BD: Then we’re back to thirty billion
possibilities every second.
Sandroff: That’s great. I still
BD: At what point do you include human
frailty, and human capacity?
Sandroff: Not at all. What is it
that people do now? They work! Hopefully they have meaningful
work, but many people don’t have meaningful work. They just sort
of do things. They come home, and then they find some way to escape
it. Often times the method that they choose to escape is something
that doesn’t really involve them at all. It’s not really an escape
at all. It’s just like a drug.
BD: It’s passive. Television is
Sandroff: Yes, television is a terrible
thing. It’s a terrible thing, as is any type of activity that we
do to escape... though escape is not a bad thing.
BD: You want music to be interactive?
Sandroff: Anything we do to exercise our
brains can’t be passive. So, wouldn’t it be great if instead of
people going home and turning on their television, they were able to go
home and turn on some musical instrument that they can interact with,
or some device that would generate stories, or something that would create
sculpture? Isn’t that a more positive, engaging kind of activity?
BD: Should the machine create it, or should
the brain create it?
Sandroff: The machines are just there.
They’re just our tools. It shouldn’t make any different if it’s
a chisel you come home with, or a 3-D Modeling System on a computer.
What difference does it make? Being creative is being creative!
BD: What advice do you have for audiences that
come to your concerts, or other concerts?
Sandroff: Oh, I wouldn’t presume to give
people advice. Make sure they park legally. Make sure they
have a concert ticket, and always buy the most expensive ticket you
can afford, so that you can be in the best listening position.
BD: That’s our new picket sign
— ‘Concert tickets not parking tickets!’
Sandroff: [Laughs] I agree.
Make sure you wear comfortable clothes. That’s really an important
piece of advice. There’s nothing worse than looking at people who
are in dressed up clothes that are ill-fitting, or just weren’t designed
for comfort. They were designed for the visual, or social impact
that they make, and they’re uncomfortable. You’re
not going to enjoy listening, or even hope to if you’re uncomfortable.
So, find a comfortable seat, and a good place in the house that’s
not behind the lady with the big tall hat, and dress very comfortably.
If you do all that, then you’ve got a chance. That’s the best advice
I can give to people coming to any concert. Then lastly, try to
leave your expectations at the door, and if you can’t leave your expectations
at the door, at least be prepared for the possibly that something unlike
anything you’ve ever heard before is going to happen, and that it might
just move you in some way. Period. [Both laugh] Although,
I think actually wearing comfortable clothes is better advice. I’ve
been at concerts all week of my music, and I was sometimes in the audience,
and sometimes on the stage. When I was in the audience just like
everybody else, I could look around, and watch people’s reactions.
BD: Is it comforting or distressing
to be in the audience rather than on the stage?
Sandroff: I would rather be on the stage,
because then you’re actively doing something. But I don’t like
listening to my music. I never have liked listening to my music
in public places.
BD: [Somewhat distressed] Do you
dislike your own music?
Sandroff: No, I don’t dislike my music.
Sometimes I dislike my music, but I don’t like listening to it with
other people. It’s a little easier to do it in an audience, where
it’s more anonymous than it is when I invite people up to my studio.
If people want to hear something in my studio, I leave the room, and I
let them listen.
BD: I assume you’re really glad when your
music is on a flat disc so people can listen to it.
Sandroff: Absolutely! That method,
or on the radio, is terrific. I think radio is a wonderful way to
perform music. We have no idea what these people look like.
Nobody can look at you or me. You have this great voice, so people
form this image of you, and that’s how you look to them. I think
BD: [With a chagrin] When they meet
me they’re so disappointed... [Sighs, and remembers this cartoon]
Sandroff: [Laughs] Well, they may never
meet you. If you work it out, they only ever meet your voice, and
it’s very comforting. It comes right into your house, and all the
performers are there, but they’re not there. We don’t
have to deal with their problems, or with the fact that this guy’s fat
and bald, and that guy over there has got bad breath. That mechanism
of distribution is just fine. I like it a lot.
BD: You could be listening to this broadcast
right now, and no one else would know.
Sandroff: I won’t listen to this broadcast.
It’s nothing personal, I just never do. It’s a rule I have, for
a couple of reasons. One, I just sit there and would be grumbling
about how stupid I sound. I would be extremely upset that I made
this remark or that remark, and I would be having a discussion with the radio.
Or I would be angry because you cut it a certain way. It’s
absolutely better if I don’t listen to it, so I won’t.
BD: But you’re glad to know that it was
Sandroff: Oh, absolutely. I want everybody
to hear my voice, and what I have to say about my music, and I want everybody
to hear my music. I’m very pleased to be a performer in this medium.
I just don’t want to have to be in the audience. If it’s a different
composer, that’s a different circumstance.
BD: You’re glad to listen to a program
about somebody else?
Sandroff: Of course, but I won’t listen to one
about me, just as I don’t like going to concerts where my music is played.
I like to know that they’re happening, but I would just as soon stay
at home. If I have to be there, I’d much rather be performing.
Then, if I can’t be performing, and I’m going to have to sit in the audience,
I’d much rather it be a piece that I wrote a long time ago, that I don’t
have as much emotional investment in anymore.
BD: When you hear a piece from ten, fifteen,
twenty years ago, do you feel that it stands up?
Sandroff: This weekend I heard a piece that I
wrote in 1981 [twelve years prior to this interview], and I
was confident that the performers would perform it well. I didn’t
have that anxiety, although because it did involve electronics, there
is always a bit of anxiety that something is going to fail.
But after the first five seconds of the piece, I realized that the
electronics were fine, and then there was the opportunity to attempt to
sit back and relax.
BD: It’s interesting that you turned it
completely on its head. You don’t expect the live performers to
Sandroff: [Interjecting] Oh, of
course I do!
BD: ...but you do expect the electronics
Sandroff: No, no way. I don’t believe
that machines are any more or less reliable than people. I can’t
do anything about the performers, BUT I am partially responsible for the
electronics. The performers may fail, and there’s nothing I can
do about that. I could have taught them the work better, but at some
point they have to take over and do it themselves. But for the
electronics I remain responsible forever. In this case, in the first
five seconds it was clear they were going to work fine, so that was okay,
and I knew the performers had the capability of playing the piece well.
I had heard the rehearsal a few days before, and it was solid as a rock.
So there was the opportunity to be able to sit back and enjoy it,
because I’m not emotionally involved with the piece. The piece is
twelve years old, and it’s going to happen. The audience is there,
and as well as I’m capable of, I probably enjoyed the performance, given
the fact that I’m not capable of enjoying any performance. The objective
observation of the work was that the work works. I was very pleased
to see that it still stands up. It’s not what I do anymore, and so
it’s like I’m looking at somebody else’s work.
BD: Is it looking at something that you
have developed beyond, or something that you have consciously rejected?
Sandroff: In this case it was something that I
have developed beyond. If I had consciously rejected it, it’s
not going to see the light of day. [Laughs] Well, that’s
not entirely true. Sometimes a publisher’s got it, and then you
can’t do anything about it. But you don’t go to hear it. You
certainly don’t go. There are works of mine that I have consciously
rejected, that I would not endorse the performance. I would not
do anything. I can’t stop it because the work’s published.
Somebody bought it, and it happens.
BD: Then somebody plays it, and what if
an audience member comes up to you and says it was the greatest piece
in the world?
Sandroff: They wouldn’t come up to me
because I wouldn’t be there.
BD: [Pressing the point] What if
they write to you in care of the publisher?
Sandroff: That’s fine. I don’t write them
back and say, “I hate you. Go to Hell!”
I don’t do that. I just say, “Thank you,
thank you very much.” You should never dump
on your audience. Let me tell you about an experience I had. One
time I watched a pianist play a whole program, which seemed very well done.
BD: Were they your works, or others’ works?
Sandroff: They were all old works by others.
The audience was mesmerized and appreciative, and they expressed
that to the performer. They applauded, and everybody was very,
very happy. It was a positive experience. The performer
then stopped the applause, and went on to tell the audience that he doesn’t
deserve their applause. He deserves their contempt because he
played very, very badly. There was dead silence in the room.
Everybody was feeling embarrassed and put upon. I wanted to get
up and punch that guy. If he knew that he played badly, then he
should have gone home and lived with it. Why should we? We were
happy, and if we were happy, so be it. What he was doing was expunging
his own guilt, and dumping it on us so that now we had to feel bad.
He walked off the stage feeling he’d done the right thing. He’d bared
his soul. He relieved himself of this great burden because he played
badly, and now he felt better. But the audience went home feeling
stupid and dumb. So, if this person writes to me and says this
piece of mine was wonderful, and changed his life, what am I going to
do? I can’t say, “You
stupid ass! I wrote that twenty-five years ago, and I’ve rejected
it. Only a moron would appreciate that work. Go and chop
your ears off!” That’s wrong.
BD: Perhaps they found something in it
that maybe you didn’t see.
Sandroff: Absolutely, and it’s not mine anymore.
It hasn’t been mine for that many years. The fact that
I don’t want to go and hear it, or look at it, or accept the mechanism
by which it was created, does not have anything to do with the people
who play the stuff. In fact, it recently happened. I got
a letter from a French musician who found a work of mine which had been
published by a European publisher, and he played it on his senior recital.
He wrote me a letter, and asked me if I would tell him about the work, and
maybe provide some insight into it.
BD: For program notes?
Sandroff: No, in this case it wasn’t for that
at all. It was because this person was interested in the work,
and really wanted to understand something about it. I wrote him
back, and said that I was nineteen when I wrote the work. It’s
twenty-two years ago, and there was nothing about that work that I even
remembered. I was a violinist, and a lot of those pieces are for
violin and piano. I wrote a million violin sonatas, and I don’t
want to hear any of them. What I said was, “I’m very happy, and I
really appreciate the letter. I’m very pleased that you’re playing
the work.” This was even though I’d rather they played something
else, but he had found it and was interested in it. I also said,
“I’m sorry that I can’t provide you with any insight into the work.
I really apologize, but again, best wishes to you, and thank you for your
interest.” He responded, and sent me a tape of the performance, with
the program and a letter telling me how meaningful this work was to him.
I thanked him, and that was the end of it. I never listened
to the tape. In fact, I threw it out because I didn’t want to hear
it, and I wasn’t even curious because I’m not interested in listening
to the work. It would upset me to hear the work because it’s not
what I do anymore.
BD: Shouldn’t the tape be kept in the Sandroff Archive
for future generations to hear how somebody performed the work without
any input from the composer?
Sandroff: Who’s going to be interested?
BD: Shouldn’t somebody be interested?
Sandroff: I know a composer who keeps
all the letters that he writes, and the all the letters that were
written to him because he believes that someday all this is going
to be really important.
BD: Not necessarily important, but interesting
on some level?
Sandroff: I suppose, but all of us have
things in our lives that are interesting on some level, that would
be of interest to somebody. Are you keeping everything that
you do because you believe it will be of interest to somebody?
BD: Not necessarily everything, but I
keep much of it.
Sandroff: I don’t. I keep my works, and
I’m not sure that I even have a copy of that particular work. It’s
possible that there may be one someplace. I have a vault where I
keep my works locked up safe from fire and rain and sleet, but I’m sure
that at the moment of my death, people will be out fishing, and I have no
notion that anybody’s remotely interested in it except me.
BD: [Mildly shocked] You don’t expect
your works to outlast you???
Sandroff: No, no.
BD: Obviously those flat plastics will.
Sandroff: Yes, maybe one will kick around
by virtue of the fact that there are repositories where things are
kept. My works are in libraries, so some of my things will outlast
BD: I view myself in part as a repository,
so that’s why I keep things.
Sandroff: This tape of us will outlast me,
but that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to be interested in it.
BD: [Being optimistic] But presumably,
if somebody listens to this tape, they will go to the flat plastics.
Sandroff: I would assume so, yes. Maybe
someone will be really heading up for a doctoral dissertation, and I
guess that’s the best I can hope for. A hundred years from now,
some doctoral student in musicology will find that every other composer
has been done, and they just happen to find this guy here, and they figure
they can get a doctoral dissertation on me. That’s the best I can
BD: Going back to this guy that you wrote
the letter to, did you say to him in a PS that you were glad he liked
this early piece, and you hoped it would interest him to discover some
of your later and more recent pieces?
Sandroff: No actually, I didn’t.
There are two reasons for that. If he liked that piece, he’s
not going to like what I’m doing now! [Both laugh] Maybe
that is assuming something for him, and that’s not fair.
BD: What’s going to happen if he does
like a newer work?
Sandroff: Then I was wrong. The
other, more practical reason is that I haven’t written anything for
violin since then, so there wouldn’t be anything to show the person.
BD: [Still in there pitching] Yes, but his
pianist-collaborator might get into electronics, and maybe he feels
your stuff is pretty good, and looks to see if you wrote anything electronically
that he’d like to use.
Sandroff: I suppose that’s possible.
I guess he could find out, so maybe I should have written something like
that in the letter. I don’t know. I just didn’t.
BD: I’m trying to get everyone to be a
musical Johnny Appleseed.
Sandroff: I didn’t, and the truth is that I’m
not sure I even thought about it. I could have, I suppose, and certainly
there are situations where it is possible. Early on, I wrote piano
music, and every once in a while I get asked about it. In fact, a
couple of years ago I was invited by a pianist to perform some works from
that same era. It was a professional acquaintance from the area who
specifically called me up and asked me to come.
BD: So did you?
Sandroff: No, but I went to the rehearsal.
I wasn’t going to go to the performance. She wanted me to do
both, and I said, “It’s hard for me to sit through these things.
It’s not that I don’t want to hear you play, but if you were playing the
concert, and I wanted to come and hear the concert, it would be great
if my piece wasn’t there. Because it’s old pieces of mine, it’s
bothersome to me.” She then said to me, “Would you please at least
rehearse it with me?” and I said, “I can’t tell you if I can be of any
value to you.”
BD: [With mock severity] How would
you know that until you’ve heard the rehearsal?
Sandroff: Because I don’t know what to
say about a work from that ilk any more.
BD: It might hit you fresh.
Sandroff: Maybe. So anyway, I went,
and it didn’t hit me fresh... although I found out that it really
wasn’t that bad a piece.
BD: [Sensing a small victory] There
you go! That’s the optimist in me. You’re in your mid-forties
now, and I’m hoping that maybe when you’re in your mid-eighties, you’ll
look back on some of these works and realize they were not bad at all.
Sandroff: Considering what it was, and considering
all the things about it, it really was a well-constructed piece of
music. [Laughing] If a student had brought that work into
my studio, I would not throw them out. I’m not sure I’d say much
more about it. It was okay, and she played it well, and it wasn’t
a terribly painful experience, but again I didn’t say “Why don’t you do
a more recent work?” I have more recent piano works, so maybe I should
* * *
BD: Is composing fun?
Sandroff: [Surprised by the question] One
of the great mysteries of being an artist is talking to people who
sincerely are interested in what it is to be an artist, and they say things
like, “Composing must be fun!” and you want to go, “Right! Composing
is fun.” The word ‘fun’ doesn’t fit right. I speak only for
myself, not for other composers. I don’t know what it’s like to
be another composer. There are moments when composing is unlike
any other experience in life. I can’t tell you what it’s like, but
it’s better than everything.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] Better
Sandroff: It’s better than sex! Fortunately,
my wife will not listen to this program either. [Both laugh]
It’s those moments you live for. That’s exactly why I compose,
because in the process, it’s like nothing else. It’s an experience
that transcends everything, and when I discovered it at a very young
age, I realized that I couldn’t live without this fix. It’s not
there all the time. It doesn’t happen daily. It doesn’t
happy weekly. It doesn’t even happen monthly sometimes. ‘Fun’
doesn’t quite adequately describe it. Composing is frustrating
much more often. It’s hard work. Sometimes it’s boring.
Sometimes it’s tedious, and it is all those things much more than ‘fun’.
But that ‘fun’ is so good that it just
blows away all the other things. It only happens every once in a
while, but it’s worth the effort. It makes life this incredible experience
that I can’t imagine being without. Being a composer is not fun.
Being a composer is sad. It is frustrating. It is irritating.
It is a bad thing to be. It is an awful thing to be, because
it means all this other stuff... like coming on the radio and talking
about your works. It means having to work extremely hard and have
your life focused in such an obsessive way that, at least for many, many
years, you don’t have the chance to enjoy anything else. It means
putting up with mindless stupid things that people say and think.
It means the frustration of dealing with the system, which is just ugly.
It means the pain that happens when people don’t respond in some way.
It’s a terrible thing to be. When I tell you about that ‘fun’
feeling you get when you’re composing, that only happens every once in
a while. But rest assured that it is so great that it makes all that
other stuff pale. It’s just that the other stuff goes on daily,
and weekly, and monthly, and is no fun.
BD: I’m glad to know that the rewards
do counter-balance the agonies.
Sandroff: I guess it does, or I wouldn’t keep
doing it. I have to say that as you get older and more successful,
the bad is tempered a little bit. It’s hard to be a young composer.
It’s a little easier to be older, when your works are getting done,
and things are happening for you, but that positive feeling is what it’s
all about. It’s not about the work. It’s not about the
career. It’s about the process.
BD: I’m glad to know that you’re more
of an optimist than a masochist.
Sandroff: But there has to be a major masochistic
component because there are very, very few people in the world who
would put up with all the other things. What do you get for it?
You get abused, you get ignored, you are reviled or ignored.
Being ignored is usually worse than being reviled. I would take reviled
any day over ignored. You get stuck with a very modest lifestyle
despite years and years of education and work. I find it amusing.
I started learning how to do what I do when I was that big [holding his
hand about one yard off the floor], and I’ve been working like a dog at
it weekends, nights, days for thirty-five years. By a composer’s standards,
I do live in the suburbs, I own a home, and I’m lucky because I’m an academic.
I’ve been very lucky, but I’ve worked very hard for it. Still,
on the standard of what other people with a similar amount of education
and professional standing have, it’s very modest. I work very, very
hard, and from an external point of view, that’s the bad news. It’s
very, very limiting. The positive to that is those few special
moments. Some people would say that I get to travel. I have
gone to Japan and to Europe, but I don’t consider that part fun. That’s
part of the bad news, because you go there to work. You get see people
play your work, but that’s not fun. The things that people would
think would be really fun are not the fun part for me personally.
I’m only speaking for myself. Others might get off on that, but I don’t.
It’s painful for me because I really want to be left alone. On the
other hand, I want enormous recognition, so it’s a double-edged sword.
You can’t have both, so you just kind of go with the flow. I’m really
an enormously fortunate person. I’m very, very lucky. I’m
doing exactly what I want to do with my life. I couldn’t ask anymore
from my life than I already have, so I’m not really complaining.
You asked the question if composing was fun, and nobody makes art because
it’s fun... at least I don’t think they do. I’m a railroad buff of
sorts. I really like that, so for me, that is fun.
BD: Do you have model trains?
Sandroff: No, I don’t. I would if
I had the time. I really lust after them, but I know I can’t hold
the time to do it. So, I read magazines. That’s what I do.
I belong to train museums. My particular area is traction -
electric trains. Fun for me is going out to the Illinois Railway
Museum in Union, Illinois, and riding the Electroliner. Or
sitting on the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] train, in the first car
and watching it, even though I’ve done it a thousand times before. That’s
fun! When I go to a new city, inevitably the first thing I always
do is make sure I’m near, or have access to, their subways, trolleys
or inter-urban systems. That’s what I do everywhere I go.
I’ll go to a conference, or concert, and I make sure that I have access
to one of those kinds of rail systems, because that to me is fun.
I’d much rather ride on a trolley than go to a concert. That’s perverse,
but it’s fun.
BD: Do you like the monorail in Seattle?
Sandroff: I’ve never ridden the monorail
in Seattle, but it doesn’t have wheels. I’m very old-fashioned.
It’s got to be rails on the ground, and it’s got to have a third rail,
or something like that. I was in San José in October,
and they have a brand-new light rail trolley system, and I just rode
the hell out of it. I had a great time. That’s fun to me,
or finding old railroad right-of-ways, or going to a lecture where
somebody pulls out slides about the old Chicago and North Shore. That’s
my hobby, and what’s interesting about it is it’s
the first time in my life I ever had a hobby, because music was everything.
BD: Music didn’t
start out as a hobby?
Sandroff: It was everything. It
was work, it was hobby, it was everything. I never had a hobby,
and at the age of thirty-five I got to the point in my career where I could
decide to look a little outside, and it’s been great fun because now
I have a hobby. Everybody should have a hobby. Music to a
musician is not a hobby.
BD: Are you glad that some people have
music as a hobby?
Sandroff: Oh, absolutely. It pains me greatly
to know that amateur music-making has gone the way of so many things,
although there’s an area for technology which is bringing it back to
us. Computers and synthesizers are bringing amateur music-making back.
Before there were radios and phonographs, if you wanted music you made
it at home. Everybody had a piano or an organ, and everybody played
BD: My old professor, Tom Willis, talked about
the idea of a piano on the same level as a sewing machine.
Sandroff: Absolutely. A reed organ was common.
It was a household appliance that you owned, and somebody
— possibly everybody
— knew how to make music. Today,
those things over there [pointing to the stack of CDs] have the reproduction
systems. People know how to play the volume control.
BD: This takes it from active to passive.
Sandroff: Right. The one thing the technology
has brought back is people making more music, and that’s good. The
participation in music from a maker’s point of view makes you a more
interesting audience. I know that sounds so elitist, but I can
remember sitting with a computer that would do notation and then play
the sounds, and having a colleague come over and stare at it with great
consternation. Finally he said, “Oh, my God! With something
like that, anybody could compose,” and I said, “Yes, isn’t that great?”
From his point of view, that wasn’t great because composing was like alchemy.
The only way to gain the knowledge was to go to the composer’s place and
apprentice yourself for many years. Only the select few could do that,
and it was this magic that we possess that we didn’t share very readily.
The idea that anybody could compose was just horrifying to him, and
that’s not my point of view at all. I think everybody should compose.
Composing is a great thing to do, so they should do it.
BD: I’m glad you’re a composer. Thank
you for being one.
Sandroff: [Smiles] Thank you for
inviting me on your program. Maybe I will listen... [Both laugh]
---- ---- ----
© 1993 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 5, 1993.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again
in 1999. This transcription
was made in 2020, 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, 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.