Composer  Bruce  Saylor

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Composer Bruce Saylor was born April 24, 1946 in Philadelphia, PA. He has written symphonies, concertos, chamber music, songs, and large-scale choral pieces, many of which have been commissioned and performed by major opera companies, orchestras, chamber ensembles and at music festivals around the world.

He studied composition at the Juilliard School in New York City from 1964 to 1969 with Hugo Weisgall and Roger Sessions. A Fulbright Fellowship sent him to study with Goffredo Petrassi at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome from 1969 to 1970. That year he entered the City University of New York Graduate Center where he studied composition with Weisgall, theory with George Perle, and analysis with Felix Salzer. He received his Ph.D. in 1978.

Among Saylor's many fellowships, grants and prizes are awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Jerome, Guggenheim, Mellon, and Ingram Merrill, and Lawrence Kinsloe Madison Foundations, the National Prize for Composition from the National Society of Arts and Letter, the Music Award and also the Charles E. Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, numerous scholarships and prizes from Juilliard, and the Fulbright.

He has composed five operas, among them Orpheus Descending, after Tennessee Williams, with the libretto by J. D. McClatchy for Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he was composer-in-residence, and The Image Maker, a setting of the James Merrill play. He has collaborated with Nine Circles Chamber Theatre, Jonathan Levi and Gil Morgenstern co-directors, in creating five theatrical productions performed in the US and in Europe. Saylor's orchestral music has been commissioned and performed by the San Francisco, Houston, Nashville, Yale symphonies, and by the American Composers Orchestra, and Chicago Composers Orchestra. He has been commissioned to write a dozen large-scale pieces for chorus and orchestra, symphonic works, concertos and much vocal, choral, and chamber music. He has collaborated with soprano Jessye Norman, composing music for two full-length CD's, on music for several important national occasions, and on concert versions of Duke Ellington's sacred music, which Ms. Norman performed around the world. Four of his song cycles have been recorded by mezzo soprano Constance Beavon, and violinist Gil Morgenstern has performed and recorded much chamber music and a concerto.

Saylor teaches at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College and at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD  


In preparation for the world premiere of Orpheus Descending, in the spring of 1994, I met with Bruce Saylor for a conversation.  Portions were aired on WNIB, Classical 97, to promote the performances, and now the entire chat has been transcribed on this webpage.

Naturally, ideas and anticipation of this work were swirling around as we spoke . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing opera at the end of the 20th century.

Bruce Saylor:   One is very aware of the very rich legacy you come out of, and I do feel like I come out of it, and have been nurtured by the great operatic tradition of Europe.  Maybe as much as my actual instructors and music composition, I feel like those opera composers have been my teachers very much.  It’s been a thrill to hang around the Lyric Opera, going to the performances every night, and reacquainting myself with these wonderful masterpieces.

BD:   You mentioned the European tradition.  Is there any kind of American operatic tradition?

Saylor:   I’m not sure that we have an American operatic tradition, especially since we’re such a polyglot and polycultural society to begin with.  Our influences have come from the West and East, as well as our own indigenous traditions, which come from Africa and all kinds of other places.  These rich and varied traditions offer American composers a very wide musical and dramatic palate to deal with.  Many composers who are writing opera today are drawing on that very wide color range.

BD:   Are you partly establishing American tradition?

Saylor:   When one is in the middle of it, you can’t really see exactly where it’s going or where it came from.  But I certainly think that in the second half of the 20th century, many American composers have been at the forefront of contemporary world styles.  We can certainly cite chapter verse in that.  Henry Cowell and John Cage, and that great American experimental tradition includes people our greatest composer, Charles Ives.  Then there are the avant-garde figures of serialism, such as Milton Babbitt, George Perle, and these people who have been extremely important figures in post World War II serialism, and have had maybe as much influence as their European counterparts in certain ways.  But, where it fits into opera is a rather more complicated matter, because opera, which Samuel Johnson called
an exotic and irrational entertainment is also is a very expensive entertainment.  So, when a company puts their resources behind a new work, they are taking an incredible chance.  It’s buying a pig in a poke.  They certainly spent a great deal of time choosing me on the basis of my previous work, but they didn’t necessarily know what they were going to get at the end.


One of the most often-quoted descriptions of opera is that of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who famously defined opera in the mid-eighteenth century as ‘an exotic and irrational entertainment’.

Johnson’s response to opera was at one with a prevailing English attitude of curmudgeonly roast-beef-and-ale xenophobia presented as bluff common sense, and was aimed primarily at Italian opera. His suspicion of Italian opera was shared by writers such as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in The Spectator, the poet Alexander Pope (who represents opera as a foreign ‘harlot form’ in The Dunciad), and the painter William Hogarth, who satirized the Whig aristocracy’s cultivation of Italian opera (and other such foreign affectations) in prints and paintings.

The literal meaning of exotic is, indeed, ‘foreign’ (as Johnson’s own dictionary explains), and this may be all that Johnson implied when he used the term, in this instance quite accurately; for, despite indigenous attempts at the form in the seventeenth century, by the eighteenth century opera was perceived as an essentially foreign import to Britain, being largely performed there in a foreign language with foreign performers. And for most countries in the world for the first two centuries of its existence opera would be exotic beyond Italy since, France aside, it was generally assumed that opera was Italian per se. The majority of opera composers were Italians, many working in countries outside of Italy; but many non-Italian composers such as Handel, Gluck, Haydn or Mozart predominantly set operas in Italian, usually outside of Italy too.

==  Text by Nicholas Till, University of Sussex, published by the Cambridge University Press  

BD:   But they knew what kind of a poke you had been poking around in.

Saylor:   [Smiles]  Well, that’s true, and they treated that with tremendous care.  When I was nominated to apply for the position of composer-in-residence of the Lyric Opera, I had not only to submit samples of my work, but a project for which the rights were ready to go.  My librettist J.D. McClatchy and I happened to have the rights to a very great, but not too well-known play by Tennessee Williams, Orpheus Descending.  I would like to think that it, as much as my resume and my work, resulted in my being chosen for the residency.

BD:   Is it good that the person at your particular stage of life be a composer-in-residence with the company?

Saylor:   It certainly has been great for me.  First of all, I’ve been able to immerse myself in not only the two years of the repertory of a great opera house, but in the opera house itself.  I’ve had the doors opened to almost any rehearsal room I wanted, and I can watch operas being put together from both the standard repertory as well as new works.  This includes
‘Toward the 21st Century repertory being put on the main stage, and that’s been exciting.

In 1989 Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its “Toward the 21st Century” artistic initiative.  This was the most important artistic initiative the company had undertaken to date, and one with a far-reaching impact on American opera in North America as well as in the international opera community.  Throughout the 1990s Lyric produced one 20th-century European and one 20th-century American opera each season as part of the regular subscription series.  Within this initiative Lyric commissioned three new works: William Bolcom’s McTeague (1992-93); Anthony Davis’s Amistad (1997-98); and Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge (1999-00).

BD:   You had written vocal music.  Had you written an opera?

Saylor:   I did write an opera in 1976.  It was a Bicentennial Commission, and they wanted a one-act work that they could use as on American double bill, and they wanted it written for small forces.  So, I wrote a 50-minute opera based on a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It employed a relatively small cast, and also a small orchestra of about 13 or 15 players.  I found that I was not necessarily limited by those resources, but I rose to the task on that occasion.  Maybe to some degree it prepared me for my new task in Orpheus Descending, for which I also have the small but important cast, and somewhat larger orchestra of about 23 players.  It’s still not the resources of standard symphony, which would be found in the orchestra pit for a Verdi opera, or even a Mozart opera.

BD:   Has watching the staging of La Traviata and Die Walküre [two of the works being given by Lyric Opera that season] helped you in your own work while you’re writing?

Saylor:   In a way, because in an opera it’s the vocal line that has to carry the message.  The theory that the music carries the drama in an opera is the general principle that I was reminded of going to the opera every night, and going to all the rehearsals where I was watching the relationship between the vocal parts and the orchestra.  That was wonderful, as I reacquainted myself with the great works of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner and so forth.
BD:   Would it have been even more helpful, or additionally helpful, to watch a group of chamber operas being presented?

Saylor:   Maybe.  I know a lot of the 20th-century operas pretty well, so I learned just about as much listening to La Traviata with its incredible economical way that Verdi carries a message with the vocal part, and the quicksilver changes of feeling in Violetta and the other characters.  Also, in Così fan tutte, there is the way in which the orchestra, as well as the voice parts, tells the secrets of the hearts of these characters.  It’s been a wonderful experience.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   With opera being so irrational and strange, are you trying to fit your new music into the Great Operatic Tradition?

Saylor:   One thing that is quite unusual about what I did stems from the choice of the Williams play.  Our point of view was to use the particularities and richness and Americanisms of Williams’ own extraordinary dramatic and poetic vocabulary, which is unlike anybody else who has been writing in the U.S.  I confess that I’ve not been a student of Williams, though, like every American, I know the famous plays and movies, and also the way in which their vocabulary, although very literary, has seeped into our everyday language.  One of the wonderful things about Orpheus Descending is that it doesn’t have the kind of iconographical largeness of our American life as Streetcar Named Desire or Glass Menagerie, or these very, very famous films which perhaps might tend to have people make comparisons.  Obviously, anytime you slightly shift one work of art into another medium, even if it’s a sister art form such as theater and opera, some people will think,
“That’s not Mr. Brando’s performance, or Ms. Woodward’s performance.  So, in a way, it was not only the particularly operatic nature of Orpheus Descending that has been pointed out from time to time since its premiere in 1956, but also the relative obscurity among the general public of the play.

BD:   Is it a strong enough play to carry the evening?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Bright Sheng, and Leo Kraft.]

Saylor:   It’s a wonderful play.  It is filled with characters who are passionate, and striving, and full of yearning, and have heightened emotions.  Even though it’s set in the particular Hell of the underworld that Williams has contrived
which is a small southern town blighted in its bigotry, which is a very, very distant thematic background to the events of the playnonetheless it is a very powerful situation.  I don’t want to use the word in a misleading way, but it is melodramatic, and has a storyline of incredible power.  It has the qualities that an opera should havelove, sex, violence, passion, love and death together, conflict and resolution, and yearning and striving.  They are very, very much part of this very, very human drama.  Also, there is the way in which it reaches back not only into operatic history, but one of the great classical myths of all time gives that as our libretto.  J.D. McClatchy called it the underpinnings of myth that we don’t even have to be aware of on the surface going into the theater.  In fact, these underpinnings that Williams has submerged a little bit are there, as our dreams sometimes have pointed out.  They have mythic underpinnings, even though the details of the surface change from night to night, or from dream experience to dream experience.

BD:   As you encountered this play by Tennessee Williams, obviously he thought it was a finished product.  Now, you are going to take it and reshape it a little bit, and comb through it, and then cloak it in this new guise of music.  Do you feel this is conflicting at all?

Saylor:   One very practical consideration for an opera composer is that there can’t be as many words.  As we sit here talking in a relaxed fashion, I’m reminded that we refine our musical ideas and sharpen them and hone them through the process of repetition.  That verbosity, in the best sense of the word, is one of the ways we human beings work out our thoughts and feelings.  This is one of the wonderful things that Williams does in his plays.  He’ll work through an idea for three pages of sometimes quite intense or even offhanded dialogue.  But in the opera, we can’t necessarily do that.  We don’t have the luxury of the sheer numbers of words, and that’s what the role of music can provide.  One of those fantastic abstract music can do some is of the repetition, strangely enough.  Also, in the way that Wagner, who invented his leitmotif structure, we can say things in the music in the orchestra or even in the vocal parts which doesn’t necessarily coincide word-for-word with what is actually tumbling out of the singer’s mouth.  So, there can be counterpoint between the words of a libretto and what the actual notes that are being heard are.  This is like having our subconscious in the back of our mind constantly, even while we’re thinking and talking about something else.  It’s a fantastic subtle medium, and it’s been a very rewarding thing to work on, especially with this leitmotif structure that permeates Williams’ own stage play.

BD:   Is it safe to assume that when you sit there with a blank score-page, you’re reading the text and reading the libretto, and going back and forth, and that’s where the music springs from?

Saylor:   [Smiles]  You have put it better than I could.  Despite having the play in front of me for even six months or more, it wasn’t until Sandy McClatchy delivered the libretto and I put it on my piano with some blank music paper that I actually began writing the notes themselves, or any of the music.  It was the words themselves, Williams’ own text, with its very special qualities that we take for granted, since they seem so informal and natural, that really got me going and really inspired me.  In fact, even though I was unconscious of it, it determined the way in which the structure of our opera was going to be unfolding.  I’m not sure that I was completely convinced what my modus operandi was going to be before I actually began, so I waited to see what would happen.  Luckily the Williams, refashioned so expertly by Sandy McClatchy, got me going, and led me to a musical structure which was very, very fluid, and very psychological.  For example, it uses techniques of not only leitmotifs
which seems a little esoteric, but is not reallybut also recapitulative sections.  I found myself writing music that referred to Lady Torrance, the Eurydice character, in her father’s wine garden fifteen years previous, which was the site of the great love of her life, David Cutrere, but also her great, great tragedy, which was the conflagration of the wine garden, the fire set by a vigilante group, the subsequent death of her father in the fire, and also the tragic end of her love affair with David Cutrere.  So, this wine garden music features a somewhat consonant and rich nostalgic harmony, with the melody that turns and climbs on itself as though vines were climbing up the little white arbors of the wine garden.  I can bring it back for associative purposes for her memory, or I bring it back toward the end of the opera in two ways.  One way is when her horrid husband, Jabe, who is the personification of death himself and in fact, is moribund upstairs trying to get Lady’s attention with huge cracks of a two by four on the bedroom floor, confesses that it was he who led the vigilante group that burned up Lady’s father’s wine garden.  I’ve taken the wine garden music and distorted it by orchestrating it with muted brass, and changing the harmonic color to make it more minor instead of major.  It was a great experience of manipulating these materials in a way that will effectively propel the actions and the emotions and the backward and forward themes of this drama.

BD:   Once  you got the libretto, did you know at that point about how long it would take to compose all the music?

Saylor:   Luckily I did because I had a deadline.  There is nothing that a composer responds to more than a deadline.  I’ve been composer-in-residence for two years, and I have used every minute of those two years in various stages of composing the work
using the libretto, launching into writing the first two scenes, then revising scenes and going through the opera again with our stage director, Rhoda Levine.  I also made a few editorial changes when listening to bits of it sung by the wonderful young artists of Lyric Opera Center for American Artists.  [The work would be conducted by Stewart Robertson.]


See my interviews with James Dashow, and Ezra Sims

BD:   Did you pace yourself well, or did you find yourself hurrying a little bit or luxuriating a little a bit?

Saylor:   I didn’t really luxuriate, but the tempo of the shared amount of work sped it up toward the end.  It was not only because I do respond to deadlines, but it gets my imagination going, if you will.  At the time I got through composing half of the opera, I had a critical mass of musical material, and found that I was able to reshape and develop and use things again for associative purposes, even if it were in different forms.

BD:   Like a large pile of clay, rather than getting more new clay, you’d always reuse and manipulate the clay you have?

Saylor:   That’s right, and this seemed perfectly natural in the course of writing this opera.  It was only after the fact, when I realized that it is through repetition that we make associations in life or certainly in art.  The sonata allegro principle is about repetition and development, and that is using the materials.  So, I certainly found that it was not so difficult to compose faster at the end.  I really wanted a wonderful final aria for Lady, and I must say I was daunted by this.  There are so many intimidating models in the operatic literature of final triumphant arias.

BD:   [Paraphrasing an old saw]  So, it’s not over
til the principal lady sings?

Saylor:   [Smiles]  It certainly was, and I felt the pressure of that.  But I think I came up with something that I hope will thrill our audiences.

BD:   Is it safe to assume that you really won’t know until after opening night is over?

Saylor:   I’m a little too close to this work at the moment to be able to tell what the overall affect is.  Luckily, I have gotten some wonderful feedback on the part of people either on the periphery or involved in the project.  They have not only given me feedback all along the way, but now are able to step back themselves, and are excited by what the work will be like.  I think it’s going to be an effective piece of musical theater, and I just can’t wait to see it.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   We’ve been talking specifically about this work, and I want to talk now about your work in general.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of simply writing for the human voice.

Saylor:   It’s our most exciting instrument.  It’s the instrument that’s closest to a human being, because the instrument is a human being.  I’ve written vocal music my whole life, even choral music when I was a kid.  I grew up in church choirs, and I wrote little chorale pieces from the beginning.  I’ve been writing it not by any means exclusively, but by now more than fifty or sixty percent of my output has been vocal music of various sorts.  I’m very stimulated by words.  They suggest music to me.  I also love to use the rhythms of American speech because they sometimes suggest very specific kinds of musical ideas to me.  People have commented on my prosody over the years, but I’d like to think that my interests are less merely in being a good setter of English than someone who really takes the possibilities of American speech and uses them as musical ideas in the way that some of the wonderful European composers of opera have.  But also, our specifically American songwriting tradition uses the rhythms of words in ways that are special to American popular music composers, and Broadway composers, and gospel composers.  We Americans can’t avoid our musical heritage because it’s around us all the time.  Perhaps I have that unconsciously in my ear, and I hope it seeps into my music.

BD:   You’ve also done some teaching throughout your career.  What advice do you have for young composers coming along, either for opera composers or non-opera composers?

Saylor:   First of all, there’s not much money in it, so don’t go in it for the money.  [Both laugh]  Go into it because you love to do it, and it’s the only thing that will make you happy.  From a practical point of view, you have to compose the music that you love.  Otherwise, you’ll tie yourself up in knots by trying to respond to what might be expected of you.  Sometimes it takes a long time for a composer to come to that realization.  We’ve all felt the pressure of our mentors, as well as our peers at various times in our life, and in the ways that we wanted to please our parents.  We certainly wanted to please our music teachers over the various times in our musical life.

BD:   In looking over the names of some of the people you studied with, they have basically been tonal composers rather than the twelve-tone composers.  Was this a purposeful thing that you sought them out, or have they simply shaped your ideas about what music should be?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Bernard Rands, Aurelio de la Vega, Roque Cordero, Max Lifchitz, and Anne Marie Ketchum.]

Saylor:   My two primary teachers at Julliard were Hugo Weisgall and Roger Sessions.  At the time that I was studying with these two giants of American music, they had pretty much left the tonal part of their work behind, so both were really atonal figures.  At Juilliard in those days, they were going against the grain.  They were the composers who were writing in atonal styles as opposed to the American symphonic tradition.  I certainly was impressed by them, and spending a couple of years in Europe acquainted me much better with the European contemporary masters.  Pierre Boulez and Stockhausen excited me very much back then, when I was young and impressionable.  I certainly have never written music that I didn’t love and feel deeply about.  In the last ten years or so, as part of the learning process of watching my career go, I’ve been moving towards streamlining my musical style, in the sense of streamlining my notation.  I am making my notation less complex on the surface, and having it be easier or less intimidating for the performers, so they can concentrate on the expressive possibilities.  It’s amazing, as I’ve been learning what one can do in six-eight time without a single quintuplet or septuplet.  It can be very difficult, of course, at a certain tempo, but there’s a lot of freedom and flexibility you can gain from relatively simple notation.  I haven’t really changed my musical style since my 1960s and 1970s, but I may have streamlined my harmonic style for purposes of clarity, and my rhythmic notation for purposes of practicality.  Here it is 1994, and the long organic process in my work has really prepared me well for the task at hand, which is writing a two-and-a-quarter-hour work of musical theater based on an American subject, in which I had to write many different kinds of music to portray these wildly different characters on the stage.  It is not in an eclectic musical style, but in a unified style that somehow hangs together.  It is perceptible by the audience that the musical contrast can portray the contrast of the characters and situations, and add up to a cohesive musical whole that lasts throughout the piece.

BD:   Is this what you look for in any piece of music
that you write it as a cohesive whole?

Saylor:   Absolutely.  I was not a little frightened by the task at hand, which was to write a two-hour opera that had a cohesive whole, and that didn’t sound sort of gray, and didn’t have the same kind of musical style throughout.  I don’t want to lead people into expecting the wrong thing, but the play itself has this incredible flow to it, as Tennessee Williams will.  What happens in the play is that the density of the poetic style changes.  Sometimes it’s very rapid and informal, and then it becomes suspended in those incredible ways that Williams can, and it becomes extremely symbolic, even when using very plain language to express very extraordinary things.  So, it was that almost imperceptible flow of densities that I wanted to capture in musical terms.  This is why I’ve sometimes reduced the accompaniment to the vocal line to a single note or a single chord, having a melody of more complexity on top of that.  Not only does this change the densities of the texture, but it also allows the text to be audible in our hall without supertitles.  It’s going to rely on the gifts of our young artists, and I hope the discretion of my orchestration and the lightness of my musical textures will allow the libretto to be heard and perceived by the audience.  I would really love the audience to be on the edge of their seats the whole time.  They can follow the opera as though it were a drama in the theater, almost a straight play or a movie, which, of course, is what opera is.  Opera is theater, and the great composers in the past certainly wanted it to be that way for the audiences in their own countries.

BD:   Okay, opera is theater.  What is music?

Saylor:   Music is such an abstract art form that it’s difficult to talk about.  But, in a way, it’s the perfect medium for accompanying musical theater because it is unspecific.  You cannot describe an orange in musical terms... though the great Richard Strauss, whom I admire incredibly, can describe the bleating of sheep!  [Both laugh]  There isn’t anything that Strauss can’t do in the orchestra.

BD:   Of course, the bleating of sheep is already sound, but orange is not a sound.

Saylor:   That’s true.  Music has its own kind of symbolism and lingo.  The tough thing for a composer is to set up the associations at the beginning, and to introduce the listeners at the outset what the symbols are going to be.  I have tried to do that, sometimes in fairly broad strokes.  For example, our wonderful Carol Cutrere character, who is sort of the Cassandra character in the opera and the play, is constantly warning our Orpheus of his danger in this hellish situation in which he has found himself.  But she is also extremely attractive as well, and I portray her with voluptuous music rather than angular sounds.  I use just an accent with the vibraphone to give a little sound clue to the sleazy smoky bars in New Orleans where she habitually hangs out.  It’s not a very subtle thing, but the only place where I use the vibraphone is when she is referred to, or comes on stage.  Then there’s a percussion idea that I’ve used to go along with Jabe, who is basically the King of Hell in our southern town.  This is Jabe Torrance, Lady’s husband.  I wanted to find a very brittle, clangerish, un-resonant percussion sound, and it occurred to me in a flash only six weeks ago when I was orchestrating the work.  This would be a set of brake drums, an automotive part made of cast iron, which has a hollow metallic sound.

BD:   This would also be a very heavy sound.

Saylor:   Yes.  It’s not as brilliant as the anvils in Wagner’s Ring, which produce a high pitched and nervous sound.  It’s a clangerish, ominous sound that’s associated with Jabe’s evil intentions, and evil acts of the past.

BD:   Did you specify a set of brake drums in the percussion instrumentation?

Saylor:   That’s right.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  But they don’t have to be from a ’58 Chevy...

Saylor:   [Laughs]  Luckily, I left that up to the percussionists of Lyric Orchestra to determine.  I didn’t even know if I was going to get them.  I just put it out there in the orchestra parts, and at the first orchestra rehearsal, which was just a few days ago, they were there, and they sounded fantastic.  So, finding these symbolic bits of musical material was my task, be they accents in the percussion section, or certain kinds of music with specific associations that I could set up at the beginning and then carry through the opera.  It was an exciting search.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re coming to the end of your residency here.  What advice do you have for the next guy who sits on the chair?

Saylor:   I know who it’s going to be.  It’s our wonderful Chicago composer, Shulamit Ran.  She is a composer of great stature.


BD:   [A bit surprised]  I assumed that this composer-in-residence idea would work best with a William Neil type, or a Bright Sheng type [two of the previous holders of the position], a young composer rather than an established composer like Shulamit, who has won the Pulitzer Prize.
Saylor:   As Ms. Krainik [General Director of Lyric Opera of Chicago] pointed out in announcing Ms. Ran’s appointment, she was particularly pleased because Ran is a composer of stature who had not written an opera, and wanted to.  It would be a wonderful idea to offer a workshop opportunity, a laboratory opportunity, for the composer to do such a thing.  Let’s face it, we’re all learning throughout our lives.  We learn different things at various stages.  I certainly have plenty to learn, and I’ve learned a great deal writing this opera.  Ms. Krainik pointed out that we’ve had many different kinds of composers in the program, and that epitomizes the great variety of musical styles and musical personalities we have in America.  I live in New York, and other cities perhaps have a little bit more homogeneity than in European countries and musical societies.  There is this huge diverse nation of ours, and it makes for a messy musical life, which is not highly organized, and it’s difficult to find the complexion to it.

BD:   Would you have it any other way?

Saylor:   I certainly would not.  One of our great American traits is the way in which we can admit artists of many different complexities.

BD:   Is composing fun?

Saylor:   Composing is incredibly fun.  It’s really hard, but it’s really rewarding.  It makes you not only summon every experience and bit of education and literature and associations and expertise that you’ve learned and that you have acquired over your life, but it also forces you to dig into your soul, because if there’s anything music must do is to move the soul and to stir your emotions.  It may be a bit embarrassing to say, and I haven’t said it before, but I have sat at the keyboard in front of the music paper with tears dripping down my face.  It sounds a little corny, and maybe I’ll take that back, but it is the truth.

BD:   [Re-assuringly]  No, it’s not corny at all.  It’s emotion, and you’re trying to create emotion... or at least you’re trying to create the venue for emotion to flow.

Saylor:   Right.  An artist has to feel very deeply in order to get art out there that other people are going to feel deeply about.  I don’t think there’s a note in my opera that doesn’t emanate directly from my soul.

BD:   That’s wonderful for us to be able to experience what you have laid bare.

Saylor:   Members of the cast have spoken about me as kind of a nice fellow, and a fairly optimistic person.  Sometimes the music that they find themselves singing seems so heart-wrenching.  Our Valentine Savior, Victor Benedetti, said to my wife the other day, “Boy! There must be something really going on in Bruce’s mind that doesn’t necessarily come to the surface of his personality when we meet him.”  Composing is a pretty solitary activity.  I’m there in my studio with blank music paper, and not much to go on except my own feelings.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience who will eventually listen to it?

Saylor:   Especially writing an opera, you’re constantly thinking of the audience.  In fact, you’re having multiple-vision.  You’re looking at your blank music paper and your libretto, and you’re hearing the music in your head.  You also have in front of you a stage set with people moving around on that stage.  It’s quite an astonishing activity, and there are other elements there as well.  There are the actual voices of the singers.  That’s another wonderful aspect of my residency, which I have been so stimulated by.  I’ve known for a year who my cast is going to be, so I’ve been able to write my roles for very specific singers.  That’s been a great thrill, and not one which I take for granted.

BD:    I hope it works.  Thank you for chatting with me.

Saylor:   Thanks so much.  It’s been a delight.


© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 30, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week, and again in 1996.  This transcription was made in 2021, 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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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

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