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 . . . . .

sandroff 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.

BD:   Wouldn
t 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?

Sandroff:   Both.

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 music.

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
works, also?

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 Orientbecause 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 ideasor 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 inand, from my perspective, a bag that all Twentieth Century music was inwas 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.

sandroff BD:   Not even to get another perfect piece?

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 of perfection?

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 forever.

BD:   As long as the plastic holds out.

Sandroff:   Right.

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 of stone?

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 away...

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, 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 expressionthe 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.

sandroff 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 the electronics?

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 Donald Martino.]

Sandroff:   Maybe.

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 Europeans?

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 of language.

BD:   Are you then creating new memories every time?

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 your own?

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 worksare 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 timeand that work is not so dissimilar to a Beethoven quartet, or a Brahms symphony except for the materialsthen 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.

sandroff`30 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 to hear?

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 continuous programming.

Sandroff:   Right!  So you can choose to make happen or not make happen. That way, you’re the creative artist, not me.

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 other end.

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 communicationsomehow 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.

sandroff 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 our control.

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 to hear.

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 that’s satisfied.

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 premise.

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: 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 stimulate you...

sandroff BD:   ...they decided to re-package the existing material.

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 of music?

Sandroff:   I’m optimistic about the future of humanity.  The future of music, I’m not particularly optimistic for.

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 it doesn’t...

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.

sandroff 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?

Sandroff:   Yes.

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 write novels?

Sandroff:   Absolutely, absolutely.

BD:   Then we’re back to thirty billion possibilities every second.

Sandroff:   That’s great.  I still love it.

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 passive.

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 thats 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 that’s wonderful.

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 broadcast?

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.

sandroff 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 fail...

Sandroff:   [Interjecting]  Oh, of course I do!

BD:   ...but you do expect the electronics to fail?

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.

sandroff 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 me.

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 hope for.

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 say that.

*     *     *     *     *
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 than sex?

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.

sandroff 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 an instrument.

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 everybodyknew 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]

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© 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.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.