Composer  Simon  Sargon

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie




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Simon Sargon (born April 6, 1938 in Bombay, India) is an American composer, pianist, and music educator of Israeli and Indian descent. He studied at Brandeis University and at the Juilliard School under Sergius Kagen. For many years, Sargon was Jennie Tourel's accompanist, performing with her in concerts and master classes across the country and abroad. Among his compositions are symphonic works, chamber music pieces, choral works, art songs, and operas. He has been commissioned to write works for numerous organizations including the Texas Music Teachers Association, the Meadows Foundation, Yale University, Susquehanna University, the Dallas Holocaust Society, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the last of which has premiered three of his works.

Sargon has received the Annual Award of Recognition from ASCAP (1991–present), was inducted as an Honorary Member of the American Conference of Cantors (2003), named a Finalist in the National Opera Association Composition Competition (1997); and awarded First Prize in the National Association of Teachers of Singing Musical Composition competition (1993).

Sargon has been on the staff of the New York City Opera, Connecticut Opera, Dallas Opera, and was the assistant conductor of the Concert Opera Association of New York, which gave concert performances of unknown and neglected operatic works at Philharmonic Hall.

He is currently the Professor of Composition at Southern Methodist University, and has been on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College and the Juilliard School. He also served as Head of the Voice Department at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem for many years.

In addition to teaching, Sargon was the Director of Music at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, a position he held for more than twenty-five years.





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See my interviews with Donnie Ray Albert, and Eric Halfvarson



Texans are amazing.  I can say that because one side of my own family hails from the Lone Star State.  In addition, my wife grew up there, and is fiercely loyal to her Texas roots.  Ive often commented that no matter how much she loved me, it was my own partial-Texas heritage that finally persuaded her to say, Yes.

In December of 2006, we made a driving-trip from Chicago to Texas to visit her family.  On the way, we passed through Dallas, and I arranged to meet with Simon Sargon, who, in addition to being a fine composer, was on the faculty of Southern Methodist University.  

sargon Living in Chicago all my life, it was especially pleasant to be able to walk around the beautiful campus in shirt-sleeves.  We enjoyed the warm weather, and arrived at the appointed time for the conversation . . . . .


Bruce Duffie:   How long have you been here at SMU?

Simon Sargon:   I’ve been here 23 years.

BD:   Teaching what exactly?

Sargon:   It’s varied over the years.  I started out teaching theory and being head of the opera program, and that continued for about five or six years.  Then, that particular workload was a little heavy, so I moved more into the teaching of composition and theory.  I continued to work with voice students, and taught diction classes and so forth.

BD:   All the time you were composing as well?

Sargon:   Yes.

BD:   Do you get enough time to compose?

Sargon:   It’s a constant, constant problem of just carving out time from the day
s schedule, and trying to make use of even little bits of free time that are available.

BD:   Do you find that you’re often composing when you’re teaching?  Have you got something going on in your mind?

Sargon:   Not when I’m teaching, but when I’m walking around or doing errands I’ll be trying to think through a compositional problem.

BD:   Do you carry a little sketchbook to jot down ideas?

Sargon:   Oh, sure.  I have a piece of music paper in my wallet, so that I can jot down anything.

BD:   You don’t have to be specific, but has anything significant really come of those jottings?

Sargon:   Oh, sure.  Some major, major melodies have come from them.  I’m glad I didn’t lose them.

BD:   When you’re working on these little ideas, how do you know that they will or will not link into the composition you’re working on, or the next composition you’re going to encounter?

Sargon:   It’s like any idea.  You usually don’t know what it’s going to become, and that’s just a nice adventure to see them sometimes years later.  You pick them up, and use them in a way that you never would have predicted.  I keep a notebook out for the ideas, so whenever I have to write a piece, I can go back to them.

BD:   You go back to the old sketches?

Sargon:   Yes.

BD:   But, if you’re thinking about a specific piece, you don’t always get the ideas for that one particular piece, do you?

Sargon:   No.  [Laughs]  I would have if I was so organized.

BD:   Do the ideas always eventually come?

sargon Sargon:   Eventually, yes.  That’s a hard one because you have to leave yourself open for it, and sometimes it gets worrisome if they’re not there.  Then, you get sort of panicked, and that’s the wrong way to approach it.  To be less fearful, and just have the faith that they will be there is the best way to do it for me.

BD:   I trust you have not missed any deadlines or performance dates?

Sargon:   No, I’ve been lucky that way.

BD:   Once you get the piece written, and you hear it, do you then go back and tinker with it, and revise it at all, or do you let it go?

Sargon:   Again, it depends on the piece.  On some of the pieces I do a little bit of tinkering after I hear the many instruments.  Others I have tried with the performers, or ask the questions to the performers as I’m working, so that when it’s finished, then it sits well.

BD:   Do you write for specific performers, or just specific instruments and voice types?

Sargon:   I prefer to write for specific performers, and that always helps to inspire me much more, having the personal relationship with people and knowing they’re playing.  I have found that the more you write for specific performers, the more it becomes universally playable.

BD:   I was going to ask if writing it for a certain person then limits it at all.  So, it expands it?

Sargon:   It certainly expands what can be done.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You started with the opera department, and you have a particular affinity for voices.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

Sargon:   [Laughs]  It’s a cliché, but it’s absolutely true that the voice is the most touching, and the most communicative, and the most expressive of any instrument, so that’s the joy of writing for it.

BD:   Why is it so expressive and communicative?

Sargon:   Because it comes from a person’s body.  It’s part of their very being, from their inner soul.  It’s physically coming out of their body, so there’s no medium in between, like keys or embouchure or anything to worry about.  I think very much vocally, because coming out of a Jewish background, the music of the synagogue in which I was very involved is vocal, not instrumental.  Because of that, I was always drawn very much to opera and to lieder.

BD:   You have to select text.  How does the text affect the notes that come onto the page?

Sargon:   That’s a very personal thing, because the text has got to speak to me in a way that suggests a mood that can be amplified by music, or is waiting for music to amplify it.  The pattern the words of the text have set up certain rhythms that calls for notes.  Not all poetry does that.

BD:   Do you try to find the melody in the poetry, or do you try to find the poetry that will make a melody?

Sargon:   Both, yes.

BD:   Do you select all of your own texts?

Sargon:   Yes.  I’ve had some suggested to me that have worked, for instance Huntsman, What Quarry?, a cycle for horn and soprano and piano, were suggested by the father of the horn player.  He found them in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry, and they just were right.  But usually, I look for them, and that’s a frustrating search because so many of the great lyrics have been taken, and so much of contemporary poetry is simply too intellectual, or cerebral to really be effective as song texts.


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BD:   Now we’re talking about poetry that has already been written.  With an opera text, I assume that you have to either commission a text or write it yourself?

Sargon:   Yes.  I’m working on an opera that I’m writing the text for right now.  But I have worked both ways.  I often wish I had a collaborator more often to do an opera with, but that’s not worked out.

sargon BD:   Are you enough of a wordsmith to be able to get it the way you want it?

Sargon:   Not like a real professional.

BD:   When you set your own text, do you get all of the text done and then start with the music, or do you work a little bit of the text and then put that to music before going on?

Sargon:   Both.  I’m working right now on a fairy tale opera that’s going to be done here at SMU in April, based on Rapunzel.  I usually write the whole libretto and then try to set it to music, but as I’ve worked on setting these words, I felt that it was just too wordy.  It wasn’t going to the heart of the characters, so I find myself rewriting the text until I can feel it working on the stage.

BD:   As texts, or as music?

Sargon:   Both, as to the character for the various protagonists of the story.

BD:   She’s the one who lets down her hair?

Sargon:   That’s the one.

BD:   This is in progress now.  Are you far enough along at this particular point, so that you know it’s going to get done?

Sargon:   Oh, sure.  I hope to have it done by the first of the year.  I need to have it engraved, and that will take some time, and I want to give it to the kids when they get back from their vacation.  It’s on target, assuming that I can keep working during these vacation days.

BD:   You really need to budget your time very carefully.

Sargon:   That’s why I pushed this interview later, because I wanted to spend the day working as much as possible.  I hope I haven’t inconvenienced you...

BD:   No, this has been just fine.  I hope I haven’t inconvenienced *you*.  Do you find that you get derailed, or is it easy to get right back on the track as soon as you can concentrate alone on the music?

Sargon:   There are a lot of derailments... even all the leaf blowers can drive you crazy.  The phone rings, and in our lives today we don’t have the kind of quiet workplaces that are really necessary for composers.

BD:   If you had an ideal place and the time to write, would your music be different, or would it just be easier on the compositional process?

Sargon:   I think it would easier, because there wouldn’t be pressure there.  I wouldn’t be trying to write when there’s fatigue, and somehow working despite the fatigue.  Things like that stand in the way really of doing your best sometimes.

BD:   In romantic movies, a composer all of a sudden gets an idea, and then stays up for three nights working on it.  You never do that, do you?

Sargon:   [Laughs]  As a matter of fact, I woke up last night at 3:00 o’clock.  I was unhappy with a scene from Rapunzel.  It was troubling me, and I was rethinking it in my mind.  So, I got up and wrote down what I was coming up with, but that’s rare.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you work on just one piece at a time, or do you have a couple of things going?

Sargon:   I seem to only be able to work on one and give it my full attention.  I know that other composers have kept several going, but I don’t seem to be able to do that.  It’s probably a better thing to do, because when you’re embroiled in one, and you’re stopped, you move back to doing another, and then come back and rethink the first.  That’s probably the best way to go.

BD:   When you’re working on a piece, and you’re getting the notes down, and you’re tinkering with it and you’re making adjustments, how do you know when it’s done?

sargon Sargon:   When it feels right.  It’s a feeling. When I’m orchestrating a page of music, I’ll sit and orchestrate one page for maybe forty-five minutes or an hour.  Then it clicks, and I know this is going to sound, so it’s okay.  It’s not a totally intellectual thing.  There’s a certain intuitive element in it.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career where you are not really surprised by what you hear anymore?

Sargon:   Pretty much, yes.

BD:   Are there times when the performers
perhaps not at the college level, but professional performersfind things in your scores that you didn’t know you’d hidden there?  [Vis-a-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Robert Muczynski.]

Sargon:   Yes.  There are times that they see relationships that I did not see, and that’s always interesting.  [In a shocked tone of voice]  
“My God, why didn’t I think of this???

BD:   Are you supposed to think about everything, and understand everything that’s in the score?

Sargon:   That’s impossible.  When I think of the great masters
somebody like Mozarthis mind was capable of taking in much more of the totality, and the ramifications.  I come to things through layering, and staying with a piece for a long time, and focusing on one or another aspect of it.  Mozart probably could take all of those things into account as he wrote.  The greats could see the many aspects of a piece, or the ramifications taken a lot more.  With me, I have to go one by one.  I have to go back and consider different aspects of it.

BD:   You have this great love and understanding of the voice, and you know the problems and joys of working with the voice.  Does that translate when you’re either orchestrating, or writing a woodwind quintet or a piano piece?

Sargon:   Oh, absolutely.  [With a wink]  How can you ask such a question?

BD:   [Smiles]  I just wondered if you approach instrumental music at all differently than you do vocal music.

Sargon:   Not at all.  Each line has to sing, and I sing it.  Really, a lot of times I will sing the instrumental lines, whatever they may be, just to make sure.

BD:   I assume you have experience with all of the instruments, so you know their capabilities.

Sargon:   Pretty much so.  There are some rare ones that I don’t, but the standard ones, yes.

BD:   When you’re hearing something in your mind’s ear, do you try to put that down on the page, or do you allow for a bit of creativity on the part of the singer or the instrumentalist?

Sargon:   The latter.  Being a performer myself, that’s the way I prefer.  I don’t want to be straightjacketed.  I always like to have performers contribute when a piece is being premiered, or prepared for premiere, to get their input, and to have them make suggestions.  I like that kind of feedback from them.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Staying with this balance between vocal music and instrumental music, how do you decide that a piece that you want to write is going to be a woodwind quintet instead of a lied?

Sargon:   The lied would come from having found the text, and the instrumental piece would be a more abstract idea.

BD:   But once you get to the end of a piece and you’re starting on a new piece, do you think that you want to write a woodwind quintet, or you want to go and find a text so that you can set it?

Sargon:   It’s mysterious.  What the next thing to do will just come.  For example, at this moment I’m not sure what to do after I finish this opera.  I’m just letting it be, because somehow it will be made clear to me.

BD:   I assume people ask you for pieces all the time or at least on a regular basis.  How do you decide if you’ll accept this commission, or no, you’d rather not do this piece?

Sargon:   Part of it is money.  [Laughs]  If the fee is good, I try to do it even if I’m not particularly drawn to it.  Part of it is whether I really like the instrument or not.  For instance, there are a lot of instruments which need filling out of their repertoire, because they don’t have a big choice of works.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  So, can we expect an Ocarina Concerto from you?


ocarina The name ocarina, meaning “little goose,” was coined in the late 19th century by Italian musician and baker Giuseppe Donati who modified the instrument to play a diatonic scale and popularized it in the west. However, the instruments’ origins probably go back 12,000 years. Versions of this vessel flute, in differing shapes and sizes, were found in many cultures including Mayan, Aztec, Inca, Indian, and Chinese.

During World Wars I and II servicemen were given ocarinas to carry in their pockets to improve morale. In the 1953 Finnish children's book Tirlittan, the title character plays an ocarina. In the 1990s, there was a surge in the instrument’s popularity because it was featured prominently in the Nintendo 64 video games The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. They have been credited for increasing the popularity of ocarinas and the sale of them.

Ocarinas are great beginner instruments because they are pre-tuned, and can be played straight out the box. They have an enchanting, melodic sound, and are also fun for practiced musicians. The most common ocarinas have ten or twelve holes, and are often called a “Sweet Potato.” They have a range between an octave plus a fourth and an octave plus a minor sixth.

In 1964, John Taylor, an English mathematician, developed a fingering system that allowed an ocarina to play a full chromatic octave using only four holes. This is now known as the English Fingering System, and is used extensively for pendant ocarinas. It is also used in several multi-chamber ocarinas, especially in ones that are designed to play more than one note at a time. 

Beginning in the late 19th century, several makers also produced ocarinas with keys and slides. These mechanisms either expand the instrument's range, help fingers reach holes that are widely spaced, or make it easier to play notes that are not in the native key of the instrument. Due to its lack of keys, the ocarina shares many articulations with the tin whistle, such as cuts, strikes, rolls, and slides. However, tonguing is used more often on ocarina than on tin whistle, and vibrato is always achieved through adjusting breath pressure instead of with the fingers

Composer György Ligeti (1923–2006) called for four ocarinas (to be performed by woodwind players doubling their own instruments) in his Violin Concerto, completed in 1993. In 1974, Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) incorporated 12 ocarinas in his composition The Dream of Jacob. Later, he incorporated 50 in the final section of his Symphony No. 8, completed in 2008, where they are meant to be played by members of the choir.



sargon Sargon:   [Laughs]  Well... I have to feel drawn to the instrument.  I can’t force myself on that one, although, it’s practical to do it.

BD:   Are there are times when you might not be drawn to it, but once you get into the piece, all of a sudden it becomes your favorite instrument?

Sargon:   That’s right, or, again, because of my feeling for the performer and his or her love of the instrument that communicates itself to me.

BD:   Can we assume you always rush back to the refuge of the voice?

Sargon:   [Laughs]  Not always, though I wouldn’t call it a refuge.

BD:   Perhaps then, the refuge of writing for the voice.

Sargon:   That’s better.  I will accept that.

BD:   Should vocalists feel that they have a refuge in doing your music?

Sargon:   I certainly hope so.  Quite a few vocalists have called my music voice-friendly, which is very strange.  That
s the contemporary way of saying that it’s vocal, that it’s there to be sung, and it’s meant to be sung.  After all my years of playing for voice lessons, and playing for recitals, and for singers, and so forth, I know pretty much what is comfortable for the various categories of voices.  So, I’m very careful about what I put on the paper.

BD:   Do you challenge them at all?

Sargon:   I would say it’s challenging because there’s a depth of interpretation that’s called for, and a depth of expressivity in my music.  What a lot of people have said about my music is that it looks very, very easy on the page.  It’s so spare, and then they go to do it and they’re on a tightrope because everything is so exposed, and every note counts.  So, they get nervous about it because of that.  But that’s the way I write.  I can’t do otherwise.

BD:   Do you look at that after the fact, rather than trying to do it that way?

Sargon:   That’s right.  I try always for clear texture, and not to overburden the score with unnecessary goings on.  That’s just my approach to writing.

BD:   Every note has to be necessary?

Sargon:   It has to be necessary, it has to be heard, it has to count, or else why have it?  [Laughs]

BD:   Let me pursue this just a little bit.  Why have music at all?

sargon Sargon:   We get awfully philosophical in these discussions.  Music is one of the greatest, richest, and most satisfying gifts that we as humans have on Earth.  Without music, my life would be devoid of meaning.  It would be bare and empty.  I can’t imagine it, and no other arts satisfy me that way.  I go to art museums because I love painting, and I go to theater and dance, but none of the other arts completely take me over and immerse me the way music does.  As Schubert says in his lied An die Musik [To Music], Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!  [Oh blessed art, I thank you!]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Your music becomes all-important, and yet, when you write an opera you’re dealing with the addition of the theater and the theatrical experience.

Sargon:   Right. Yes.

BD:   How do you make sure that your music is an addition rather than a distraction?

Sargon:   There’s no way to make sure if it.  You go for the best performers that you can get, and then, through coaching and talking, you try to elicit from them the best understanding of the score that’s possible.  Sometimes the singers are limited.  They are told they have a voice, and they start to study voice, but they sometimes don’t come to that with any musical background, or musical training underneath the necessity to be in music.  They get attention, and they sing, but sometimes the rest is not there.

BD:   Do you then encourage them to sell insurance, or real estate, or simply do something else?

Sargon:   I can’t do that as a faculty member here.  [Laughs]  I sometimes make gentle nudges in those directions, but I can only stand back and watch, and know what’s going to happen because you see it in their work, and in their commitment after all the years of teaching and observing the music scene.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the music scene?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Karl Haas.]

Sargon:   No, I can’t say that I am.  I feel that composers of so-called serious music are having to retreat further and further into a world that is cut off from the great commercial pop culture that surrounds us.  I am feeling increasingly irrelevant to that pop culture that surrounds us, so it’s a very difficult thing.  If I had had my choice of what I would have talent for, or wanted to do, I certainly would have gone into making films, because that is the art form which everyone is looking for today.  The visual is the dominant thing now, not the aural, and it is where they reach millions and millions of viewers.  There’s the ability to send messages, and to create really important inspiring themes in films.  I’m not saying I would like to write film music.  That’s not it.  I have done some, and although there’s so much money in it, I don’t like to give up my musical ideas and make them secondary to what’s going on on the screen.  They dictate how long the music can be expanded, and that’s not satisfying to me.  So, I just have to accept the way things are right now, as far as the world of the professional serious musicians.

BD:   [Being optimistic]  Let’s turn it around.  Rather than you putting the music to a film, is there any way of taking an existing piece of music and putting a visual with it, either your own score or someone else’s?

Sargon:   It would have to be someone else’s because I don’t see the visual when I do my music.  When somebody hears my music, I feel they have to give their whole being, and their concentration, and their intellectual focus to listening to it, and you can’t do that and be seeing something.  My daughter was a dancer, and she always likes to go to dance concerts.  But she gets irritated with me because I often sit in the dance concert with my eyes closed because I can’t stand to have the music be deluded this way.  When a choreographer is setting something like the Beethoven Grosse Fuge, or the Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto or something like this, I can’t watch the movement because the music, to me, is totally engrossing, and has no need to have something visual going on.  But that’s me.

BD:   I hope that you can close your eyes to everyone else, and then open them when your daughter is on the stage.

Sargon:   [Laughs]

BD:   Now let us go the other way.  If you don’t want things added to the music, do you not feel you’re adding something to a completed poem when you set it to music?

Sargon:   Yes, I certainly am.  But if I choose the poem, I feel that there is a place for amplifying the mood.  I think that the musical setting can really enhance, and just like an opera text, it can bring a great deal more emotion to that particular text.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  An opera text is written to be set to music.  If you take a poem, the poet obviously feels this is done, this is complete, this is finished, and there shouldn’t be anything more to it.  Yet, you are putting this other layer of sound upon it.  Are you not doing violence to it the same way someone else would do violence to your music?

Sargon:   I suppose you could look at it that way, but I’ve always been fascinated if you take the same poem that’s been set by many composers
particularly German romantic liedand you see how each one saw the poem, and how each one is bringing out a different facet of the poem.  I don’t feel they’re obscuring the poem, or in any way denigrating the poem.

BD:   You look for things that have an availability?

Sargon:   That’s right, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Some of your music has been recorded.  Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your pieces?

Sargon:   Oh, yes.  I was the pianist for a lot of them, so I kind of supervised how they were done.  So, all in all, yes, I’m pleased to see my CDs around.  There’s no problem there.

sargon BD:   It doesn’t put a straightjacket on future performers to explore different ways because we have a composer-supervisor who was a participant in the recordings?

Sargon:   Oh, no, not at all.  I have a piece, KlezMuzik, which is inspired by the music of the Klezmer, which East European Jewish composers use for weddings and so on and so forth.  That particular piece is played widely by clarinetists all over the world.  In fact, I’ve recorded it, but I wouldn’t say that’s the definitive take on it.  It’s a rhapsodic, very free quasi-improvisatory piece, and I’ve told every clarinetist that they have the freedom to bend notes, or add a grace note.  Just take it away!  So, each clarinetist has a different take on it.  I can’t say I agree with them all, but I certainly wouldn’t say they must do it like I did it.  Of course, as you know, Klezmer is more a feeling, rather than an exact science.

BD:   That’s right.  But when you write a piano piece, you have exact notes, and you can’t even bend these notes on a piano like you can on a clarinet or a violin.

Sargon:   Right. Yes.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance of any of your works?

Sargon:   [Laughs]  No, I don’t know that there’s a perfect performance of anything, really.

BD:   But, you still aim for it?

Sargon:  
Perfection is subjective here.  Certainly, you can get perfection of all the notes being correct and in tune, but there are different approaches to perfection in terms of the shaping of it, and in terms of the relationships of the sections, and how you build a piece.  I would always give the performer that freedom.

BD:   This bring us to another of my favorite questions, the balance between art and entertainment.  Where does this balance arrive, and is it always shifting?

Sargon:   I very much think of entertainment when I’m writing, because I feel a piece of music has to hold an audience.  I do not want to bore an audience.  That would be an unpardonable sin, and I don’t think that all music has to be serious and heavy.  I’ve written a lot of humorous music, and music which is fun for both the performer and the audience.  That’s very much entertainment-music, and there’s no putting down of that kind of music.  Now, there are pieces that are only in the realm of art, and people cannot go to them for entertainment.  So, it would depend on the purpose of the composer.  If, for instance, you’re writing a serious oratorio or for Catholic Mass, then the listener has to approach it from the point of view that this is art, and they’re not going there for amusement or entertainment.  It doesn’t mean that you stretch the proportions so that the piece grows too long and too boring.  You always have to be aware of the audience’s capabilities for listening.  But it’s on a higher level.

BD:   You’re always trying to inspire the audience?

Sargon:   Yes, I am.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You mentioned your background and love of Jewish music.  Is there something spiritual about everything you write, with or without texts?

Sargon:   Yes, there is, and I don’t suppose it’s original with me.  We all have God Divine inside of us, and what I try to do is bring out the divineness inside of me, so that it will draw out that divine inside the listener.  That’s my goal, even in the lighter music.  If I can get to that pure essence of who I am as a unique human being, with a soul that God has implanted in me, if I can express that truly and honestly and sincerely, then that will speak to your honest and sincere soul.

BD:   Is this what you expect of the audience
honest appreciation, or at least an honest effort?

Sargon:   Yes, and an emotional response, because if I’ve done it well, there should be one.

BD:   Do you always do it well?

Sargon:   Not always.  We’re human, so we’re fallible.  The main thing is to keep trying even when you fail.

BD:   What other advice do you have for other composers coming along?

Sargon:   I don’t know that I’m a person to give advice.  I can’t say I have mastered and conquered, so that I’m sitting up there on the top of the hill.  With every piece I write, I feel like I’m a beginner again.

BD:   [Surprised]  You’re not re-inventing the wheel each time, are you?

Sargon:   No, but pieces come in a kind of amorphous way, and then, the more I work on it, the more it focuses down to its essence.  That’s what I mean when I say that every new piece is like starting from nothing again, because it’s just that.  I think it was Hindemith who said that writing music is like a dark and stormy night, and all of a sudden there’s a flash of lightning, and you see this castle with its beautifully constructed architecture.  Then, it’s gone, and you spend your whole time trying to recreate that image in your mind.  But I don’t get that castle.  I get the vague feeling that there’s something there.  I have to zero in on it, and I have to throw away constantly, because what I have written is not moving me.  That’s not real.  That’s not going where it needs to go.  That’s what I meant when I said every piece is a beginning.  So, I wouldn’t call it
advice, but my statement to another composer is to be prepared for a lot of very lonely, very hard work that at times is frustrating, and gives you a high sense of inadequacy.  You need a philosophy and a way to work that will keep you going and help you maintain a belief in yourself.  That’s true for all creators.

sargon BD:   For whom do you create?

Sargon:   [Laughs]  I don’t write for my fellow academicians, I’ll tell you that, and for that I’ve suffered in terms of my career.  But that’s okay.  I write for this breed of listener that we can’t define very well, which is the intelligent artistically sensitive person, who may not have a great knowledge of music, but responds to it.  If my music reaches a person like that, then I’m happy.  I don’t want to write music that people will come to and be baffled by, so they learn to hate modern music because it doesn’t say anything to them.  I don’t want that.  I want to establish a contact with my audience.

BD:   Do you have the audience in mind all the time?

Sargon:   Oh yes, all the time.

BD:   Do you have the performers in mind as well?

Sargon:   Yes, both performers and audiences.  Britten had a statement, too.  He imagined everything
the hall he was writing for, the size of it, the performers, the look of the room, the acousticand then he writes precisely and specifically for that.

BD:   In some cases you have that gift, because you’re able to write for the singers you know and the instrumentalists you know and the hall you know and the date you know, and even the audience you know.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Robert Beaser, Aaron Jay Kernis, Stephen Paulus, Judith Shatin, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.]

Sargon:   That’s right, and for me, that’s a huge plus.  That’s a positive.

BD:   Then can you bring that to a piece you’re writing either on speculation, or for another group at another time?

Sargon:   Yes, but the larger question is to have my particular outlook on writing and reaching an audience, and then, let’s say, I am asked to write a piece for a new music ensemble, where I know it’s going to be looked down on because it’s not considered abstruse enough, or, I wouldn’t say
fashionable, but contemporary or baffling in a way.  That’s going to be a problem.

BD:   We seem to be coming back to more tonal music, at least in the general concert hall.

Sargon:   Oh, we are.  Certainly, we are.

BD:   Are you applauding that?

Sargon:   In principle I’m applauding it.  In actuality, some of this neo-tonal music, or whatever you want to call it, is not crafted well, and it’s an easy-out for some composers.  It doesn’t absorb me.  We have to find a way of using the tonality in a fresh way, and not compromising.

BD:   Is it safe to say that you’ll never compromise?

Sargon:   I’ve tried not to.  At times, if I had a deadline that was real tight, I just had to put something together to make the deadline.  But then I go back and rework the piece when I have time.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you wish to be at this age?

Sargon:   That’s such a hard question, because it all turns on acceptance.  Sometimes it’s very hard to have acceptance when you have dreams or expectations for yourself that have not worked out the way you wanted them to.  It’s hard to suppress those, and know that the path that has been given to you and the place you’ve arrived at is indeed right for you at this moment.  Accepting that is a struggle I’ve had all my life.

BD:   [Gently protesting again]  But your music is accepted by greater and greater numbers of people, is it not?

Sargon:   Yes, that’s true, from a vanity kind of ambition of what a successful career as a composer is.  Then I have to remove myself from thinking about that.

BD:   Would you rather be another Schubert, or another Mozart?

Sargon:   I just have to accept who I am.  That’s all.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.

Sargon:   Thank you for a very interesting interview.  I have had interviews with less-than-literate interviewers, as well as knowledgeable ones, and I appreciate the level of your questioning.  The areas of your exploration have been very, very good.




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© 2006 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in the office of Simon Sargon at SMU, in Dallas, Texas, on December 21, 2006.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

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.

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.