Composer / Publisher  William  Schmidt

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

William Joseph Schmidt, Jr  (March 6, 1926 – April 25, 2009) was an American composer, arranger and publisher of classical music.

Schmidt was born in Chicago, Illinois and began playing the saxophone at the age of six, and later added clarinet and piano to his studies. He started playing professionally by the time he was 12, and began arranging music a few years later.

schmidt He served in the Navy (1944–46) as musician and arranger in the Admiral’s band on the USS Iowa in the Pacific. Following this he attended Chicago Musical College under the tutelage of Max Wald before moving to Los Angeles in 1952. There, he attended the University of Southern California. Studying with Ingolf Dahl, he received his Bachelor’s and Master's degrees in Music Composition with honors. During the Korean War, he served again in the Navy (1950–52) as musician and arranger on the USS Tarawa in the Mediterranean.

In 1959 Schmidt formed the company Avant Music, specializing in the publishing of classical music. In 1964, Avant became the core of Western International Music, Inc. (WIM), of which Schmidt was founder and president. The WIM Catalog lists nearly 1400 compositions and associated recordings.

In 1956 William Schmidt received a DuPont Band Composition Award, and from 1970-76 recording grants from the Ford Foundation. In 1981 he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Double Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and Chamber Orchestra, commissioned, premiered, broadcast and recorded by the Pasadena Chamber Orchestra in California. He was a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and received awards from that Society from 1979 until his death. From 1956 to 2008 he received commissions from many musicians, universities, festivals, and international professional organizations, including several commissions at the University of Northern Colorado.

After moving to Greeley, Colorado in 1987 Mr. Schmidt won the City’s competition for writing a trumpet fanfare to commemorate the new performance hall. A Greeley Fanfare for 6 Trumpets opened the Union Colony Civic Center in Greeley in 1988; the original manuscript is enclosed in the time capsule of the building’s cornerstone. In 1989 he won the Creative Fellowship in Music Composition awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities. In 1990 he was Composer-In-Residence at the Breckenridge Music Festival.

Much of William Schmidt’s music was influenced by jazz and folk music. He composed and arranged music primarily for saxophone, woodwinds, brass and percussion — from solos and chamber music, to clarinet choir, brass choir, symphonic winds, band and orchestra — a total of 160 original compositions, and 470 arrangements. 


schmidt This interview with William Schmidt was held in Chicago on Thursday, October 1, 1987.  Co-incidentally, that was the day of an earthquake in California, which registered 6.1 on the Richter Scale.  He was somewhat shaken up, having tried to contact his wife, Sharon Davis [LP cover shown at right], on the phone from the plane, and then at the airport, but the circuits were out.  When he arrived at my studio, he called California and was able to get through immediately.  His wife said that there was no damage; that one thing had fallen in the china cabinet and that was all.  They called it just a ‘roller’.  Needless to say, he was relieved, and after that we settled down to have our chat . . . . .

William Schmidt:   It
s been sort of strange this morning.  A fellow sitting next to me on the plane was a city councilman from Los Angeles, and I asked if he knew what had happened.  He had just phoned City Hall to find out what was going on because he could get a line through.  He asked me if I was from L.A., and I said yes, so he asks what I was doing going to Chicago.  I told him what I did, but I said I was born there.  It turned out the guy went to the same high school I went to!  [Much laughter]  He was in the band after I was because there’s about an eight or nine year difference in age.  We were talking, and he was a caddy out at the South Shore Country Club, and I lived half a block from there.  We talked about all these people we knew from the past, I couldn’t believe it!  I said, You’re the first guy I’ve run into in years who knows all these people, let alone the neighborhood and everything else.

Bruce Duffie:   I assume you’ll get in touch with him when you get back to L.A.?

WS:   Yes, I sure will.  He was a neat guy.  It was just astounding!  I couldn’t believe it!  His name was Pat Ryan, a real Irishman from Mount Carmel, a real Irish High School.

BD:   How long were you in Chicago before you left?

WS:   I was around twenty-four or -five.  I went to High School, and I went to Loras College in Dubuque for a year.  Then I went into the Navy in 1943, and I ended up in Washington D.C. with the U.S. Navy School of Music, on the staff there.  Then, toward at the end of the War, I went to the Pacific with Admiral Sherman
s Flag and then to Japan, and we went in for occupation.  [Forrest Percival Sherman (October 30, 1896 – July 22, 1951) was an admiral in the United States Navy and the youngest man to serve as Chief of Naval Operations until Admiral Elmo Zumwalt became Chief of Naval Operations in 1970. The Forrest Sherman class destroyer was named for him.]   Then I came back to Chicago and went to the Chicago Musical College.  I was still playing and gigging around.  I was basically an arranger, and I was also playing sax and clarinet in jazz bands, or mouse bands, poker bands, you name it, whatever!  You know how you work in Chicagoeverything goes!  It’s a great gigging town.  When I went to L.A., forget it!  The only gigging there was the studios.  But here, you can make a living playing gigs.  So, I came back to Chicago, went to Chicago Musical College, and I was in the beginning of my senior year when the Korean war broke out, and I was called back in.  So I came back after a year and half in the Korean war as a Navy bandsman.  I was very fortunate.  I went with the Flag to the Mediterranean, and I saw a lot of Europe, so that was quite enlightening.  When I came back to Chicago, I was living with Philip Broyles.  I don’t know if anyone remembers Phil, but he and I used to do reviews of stock arrangements and that sort of thing for Downbeat magazine.  We lived together, and I told Phil I had this real déjà vu feeling.  I’d gone through this twice in the Navyto go away and then come back homeand I didn’t want to go through it a third time.  So I didn’t rejoin the Reserves, and Phil said we should go somewhere else.  We had an arranging service going, and we were writing arrangements for people all over the United Statesbig bands, little bands, clubs, acts, you name it.  Basically, when I studied at the Chicago Musical College I just wanted to improve my arranging skills.  I really didn’t think I ever wanted to compose seriously, but my teacher, Max Wald, who was just the sweetest guy in the world, said that’s what I should do.

BD:   Compose serious music?

WS:   No, no, no, be a good arranger.  He said there’s so many bad ones out there!  He said there’s nothing wrong with arranging, and considered that a very honorable thing to do.  He really was a great help, and a marvelous person.  Our composition lessons were not so much about composition, but rather a course in the General Humanities.  He said that I’ve got to learn more about European painting
.  He wanted me to go to the Art Institute and take a course in Ancient and Modern painting to get some background and become cultured.  He told me to go to the opera and to concerts, and all this sort of thing.  He said I should stay with jazz, which was good and that’s fine, and hone that.  But he wanted me just to expand my personal horizons culturally.  He was a marvelous influence.  He was the only person I’ve ever studied composition with who had a humanistic attitude for music.  He taught me that music has been a small part of the entire Humanities.  All the rest of these guys were sitting there getting their money and putting in their time, and a saying, “That note’s not right, and you can’t do this, and you can’t do that!  [Laughs]  It’s crazy.  It doesn’t make sense.  So to get back to Phil Broyles, we flipped a coin.  He wanted to go to New York and I wanted to go to Los Angeles, so we flipped a coin and I won.  We loaded up an old 1939 LaSalle that I got from my pop.  He had a little shop car while he was managing a Cadillac agency out there in South Shore.  We just loaded it up with all our books music and everything else, scraping the ground practically, and we drove the whole way with about fifty bucks in our pockets.

schmidt BD:   My goodness!  [My grandfather was a test-driver of the earliest cars at the very beginning of the twentieth century.  To see some of those automobiles and the exploits he went through, click HERE.]

WS:   I wanted to continue studying.  I hadn’t finished my degree at Chicago Music College, and I had a little more GI Bill coming, so I went to USC.  I really wanted to go there because a year before I went there, Ernst Toch was teaching there.  He was teaching composition, and I had read some of Toch’s books and admired his music.  I thought he was a real fine craftsman, and I think his Fourth String Quartet is just a marvel.  Lucian Cailliet was also teaching orchestration there, and he was really big orchestrator for Hollywood pictures.  I figured here’s a guy who’s had the experience that I really wanted.  Then, a very strange thing happened.  Howard Hughes had sold his RKO studio to a group of three Chicago business men, and one of them was a very good friend of my father.  So, I had a letter of introduction to Constantin Bakaleinikov to at least be a copyist and do some arranging to start with, which he said was fine.  I had worked at NBC here in Chicago as a copyist, and I’d been playing gigs around town, and had some experiences as a professional.  So that was fine.  They said I could start work that Fall.  Then, a few weeks later, Howard Hughes buys the whole studio back and there I was without a job.  But I had my GI bill, and when I went to USC everybody had left.  Toch wasn’t there; Cailliet wasn’t there.  One composer went back to Germany... can’t remember his name, but he was one of the composers that was part of the Kurt Weill group in Berlin...

BD:   Was that Hanns Eisler?

WS:   Hanns Eisler, that’s it!  So I said I wanted at least to get my Bachelor’s degree out of the way, and maybe go for a Master’s.  It was at that point I was really becoming interested in composing.  Fortunately, by the time I got to my Master’s Degree, Ingolf Dahl was there, and he was a good all-round musician who had a lot of practical experience on the street besides academia.  He was a very talented man
conductor, composer, pianist.  He came over to this country as Gracie Fields’ accompanistwhich I didn’t know at the time until I started working with himand he did a lot.  He was really an extremely versatile person, and was good to work with, but our lessons really weren’t really composition lessons.  They were sort of like with Max Wald.  He was a really well-rounded European intellectual, who had all the cultural knowledge that you just want to milk.

BD:   Is this something you recommend for all students of composition
to learn about all the arts?

WS:   Yes, sure, I think so.  I don’t think they should really study composition. They should really go into General Humanities.

BD:   Learn about life!

WS:   Right!  That’s what it’s all about.  If you have a technical problem, that skill you can acquire with a lesson with someone.  Just call them up and ask to take a lesson so they can show you this. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Where’s music going today?

WS:   Gee, you know, that’s strange.  I’m not a real music follower.  I very rarely go to concerts because I just don’t have the time.

BD:   You’re creating your own.

WS:   I get a lot of information from the radio, which is very helpful because today there’s such a marvelous series of all the major orchestras.  I hear new works all the time this way, and there’s a lot of chamber music being performed.  In Los Angeles, we’re fortunate to have really good classical stations, so for new works I can tune in certain programs that specialize, and hear it over the radio while I’m engraving, or some doing dumb work.  I can listen without all the time it takes to go down to a concert hall
which is a nice social eventbut something I find very time-consuming, especially in a city like L.A. where you go on a freeway and you have to drive, and drive, and drive, and sit, and sit, and sit.  [Both laugh]  You spend more time there than you actually do at the concert, so it’s counter-productive.  I’d rather do it either through recordings or broadcasts.  You get kind of set in your ways, and you develop your own stylistic attitudes.  You work, and try, and hone, and develop that as much as you can as you get older.  Sometimes you hear new things that are interesting, and maybe you’d like to incorporate them.  But those things gradually come anyway if you have any historical attitude.  Then, I hear something really good and I just love to steal it.  That’s the way to go!  [Much laughter]  Was it Stravinsky who said that mediocre composers borrow but the great composers steal?  [This has often been mis-attributed to Stravinsky, but the quote actually comes from T.S. Eliot, who wrote “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different”.]  I thought that was kind of interesting.

schmidt BD:   But when you steal an idea, I assume it then filters through your process and becomes your own.

WS:   Oh, sure, but there’s nothing greater than stealing a certain formal approach, and a certain way of trying to make a transition.  If it works so well there, you figure it won
t be many years before it’s going to work fine for me.

BD:   You spent a lot of time in the jazz area, and now you’re spending a lot of time in the concert area.  Are we blurring the line between those two?

WS:   With me it always has been.  I was so steeped in jazz and arranging.  I got into the Big Band thing, and then I did small combo, which is like chamber music of jazz.  I was very fortunate to be in it at a time when it really made a great leap forward in the early middle-to-late-forties.  There was a tremendous transition of a lot of experimentation, and that was one of the things that whetted my appetite for doing more composing.  It came in the form of not really writing large musical works, but introductions, endings, and transitions.  My own material had nothing to do with the tune at all.  But then there was taking tunes and altering them to a point where you almost completely reharmonized.  Then they metamorphosed, and then the next step was just to write originally.  When you get to that point, you’re really composing.  Jazz has constantly borrowed from our legit composers.  There’s no doubt about, they just do it.  [Laughs]

BD:   So, now you’re turning it around and bringing it the other way?

WS:   Yes.  I find that experience really presented an attitude.  I’d always worked as a musician, and when someone says to write this for me, tailor-make it this way, and so on, I consider that he’s paying me good money and I’m going to do it well.  You always ran into this
Lawrence Welk syndromegee, you wrote a ninth chord, so I can’t play this arrangement!  Then you either take his money or tell him to go to Hell!  [Both laugh]  A lot of times I told people to go to Hell, but I had enough work.  I always had this ground into me from experience, that I was a working writer, and I never got the academic, ‘Ivory Tower thing.  That never really touched me.  It just couldn’t because it wasn’t my focus.

BD:   Have you done any teaching at all?

WS:   No!  No, not at all.  So whenever I wrote, I thought in more practical terms, but practical to an audience that exists.  I don’t want to write to an audience that does not exist.  It’s fine to write a piece that only you understand and nobody else does, but you can only live so long and wait for people to catch up to you.  There’s a lot you can do with just a few chords.  You’ve seen what has happened in the last ten or fifteen years, how they’ve retrograded into minimalism, which is so stagnant.  [Laughs]  I was writing a press release a couple of nights ago, and I had this radio on and couldn’t get over to turn it off.  Sharon walked in and she said,
Why don’t they don’t they get rid of that C chord?  Oh, there’s an F chord.  She walked out, and about fifteen minutes later she said, Oh, they’re on a G chord now!  [Much laughter]  I said, Yeah, I guess you just wait long enough and it’ll change!  Maybe it is just the strange reactions to the really far-out avant-garde esoteric.

BD:   Where should be the balance between artistic achievement and entertainment value in music?

WS:   I don’t know.  I really can’t answer that because when I look at the really great composers, they would write anything for anyone
either for the dollar or for the performancewhatever was necessary to their career.  They had integrity, and that’s a very important word.  It’s very important to have integrity.  Bach wrote his cantatas every week, just one after the other.  His attitude wasand he even saidthat his music’s going to go to the grave with him.  I’m not worried about it.  He made that statement, and his ego was such that he didn’t worry about that.  After all, when you die you can’t hear it anymore...

BD:   [Gently protesting]  You’re not expecting your music to go to the grave with you, are you?

WS:   Well, I don’t know.  Who really cares?  What I really like is for it to be used.  I’ve written a lot of wind and brass music that is used at the high school and college level.  I have some pieces which have graduated from the college level down to the high school, as they become more proficient.  I have one tenor saxophone sonatina I wrote for a colleague.  I don’t remember who it was now, and this goes back several years.  He played it in his recital, and it was fine.  I published it, and it got to be standard repertoire at that level.  Now it’s almost a contest piece, so that makes me feel very good.

BD:   So, you write things at a certain level, but now the kids are getting to that level sooner?

WS:   Yes, right.  It’s happened with a lot of pieces that I’ve written, and it’s because technically they’re becoming more proficient.  Now whether they play it as well musically as well as a professional, or more advanced, I don’t know.  I’ve heard some pretty good performances by younger musicians because sometimes they spend a lot of time, and your college kids will work very hard.  They spend a lot of time learning a piece whereas your professionals...  I hear it over and over from composers who have gone to the L.A. Philharmonic.  They’ll talk through half the piece, read a load of it, talk through the rest of it, and that’s it.  You don’t even get to hear the whole thing in a rehearsal a lot of times.  They don’t have the time!  They’re playing two hundred or three hundred services a year, and contemporary music is one of those.  Unless you have a really dedicated conductor who really gives the composer a break, and he really understands what a lot of us go through, I don’t think there are many that care that much.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now you’ve gone one step further.  You not only write the music, but then you publish it and distribute it.

WS:   That’s right.  I did that because at the time when I was at USC, studying with Ingolf during my Master’s Degree days, I was an older person.  I was around twenty-eight or -nine, and I was a little old for the nineteen- and twenty-year-old freshmen at twenty-one.  Some of the wunderkinds were twenty-two or -three, and were winning all the prizes, so all attention was given to them.  I didn’t resent that, but just wanted to hear some of these things.  I couldn’t make any headway, so fortunately Los Angeles is a town where we had a lot of orchestras and studios and professionals.  They would play one or two days a week, and the rest of the time they’d sit around.  They had a hunger to play things, so they had all kinds of chamber groups all over town.  So, I started contacting these people, and there was no problem.  Everything I wrote I heard.  They’d rehearse it, and then they’d use it in either at their home chamber concerts, or they would play it on broadcasts.  They’d play it publicly, and I became separated from the university’s activities as a student composer.  I just put in my time and got my points, and I did all my work
which caused a little bit of resentment because even a lot of the people on the faculty there couldn’t get performances.  That was very interesting, and when I got my Master’s Degree recital, all but two people were from the L.A. Philharmonic.  The other two were the first violist from Paramount Studio, and the tuba player was a top freelance player.  People have told me it was the best Master’s Degree recital they’d ever heard at that school, because these performers not only knew the music, they had played it in several performances before.  So when they walked in, it was already polished.  There are different aspects in music, and you just have to find where all the good people are.  You go and work with them, and forget about the all the egos who are scratching each others backs, trying to get forward in the world.

schmidt BD:   Im glad it worked so well for you.

WS:   It continues now.  I had a marvelous experience this summer when I went to Kalamazoo (Michigan) for the International Trumpet Convention.  I wrote a piece for eight trumpets, and a group came out from Greeley, Colorado.  They paid their way, they practiced that piece, every note of it, and it’s a big antiphonal thing.  It was tough to do because the conductor had to be in the middle, and they really had to watch.  These kids did just a beautiful job.  I could have never have paid anybody to do a job like that.  Also, at Champaign-Urbana, they did my Clarinet Concerto in July for the International Clarinet Society Convention.  The soloist came from DeKalb. I’m getting a lot of friends over here!  He learned that concerto.  It’s a big three-movement work, a difficult piece, and he did a beautiful job.  So did the ensemble.  There are some things you cannot buy.  Things happen because people are really interested in making music.

BD:   Are these pieces on commission or are they things that you just have to write?

WS:   Some are commissions, and some I have to write.  The trumpet piece was sort of a commission because Bill always wanted me to write a piece for his group.  They ran out of money there, and I said,
Don’t worry about it.  I’ll do it because I want to do it, and it’s a piece that I want to put in my catalogue and publish.  Two years previous to that, the University commissioned me to write a big symphonic wind piece, and that was fine, so I had a good relationship up there, and being my own publisher, I can look at a work, and say if this is something I want to do, and I want to publish.  Then the commission money doesn’t really mean that much.  I know a lot of composers who have to get astronomical amounts for their commissions.  They just have to, or they just don’t feel right.  But to me, whenever I do accept a commission, I tell the person that this goes beyond their performing the work.  We’re going to engrave it, we’re going to print it, and we’re going to distribute it all over the world.  So, this is something I’m going to take much more seriously than just a commission, and I’m going to get a one performance of it.  This goes beyond that.  I’ve got to live with it.  I can’t have someone come later and want to publish it.  So, I’ve really got to be careful about it.

BD:   Does that influence your style of composing at all?

WS:   No, it really doesn’t influence my style of composing one bit.  It’s just that I want to make sure the piece is well made, that it makes sense, that it’s well-crafted, so someone knows that this works well for his instrument and sounds good.  It’s not some ugly sort of thing that it’s going to be like a piccolo piece assigned to the bass clarinet.  A lot of composers just assign things to instruments, and they don’t understand what those limitations are.

BD:   Does it help that you are a single-reed player?

WS:   Oh, yes, sure, in my writing for reeds, certainly.  It’s strange...  Most of my writing was brass and percussion and woodwinds.  When I use a string instrument, it’s usually with one or two of those instruments in combination with piano.  I’ve never written any vocal music.

BD:   You won’t write any string quartets?

WS:   Well, no.  I consider writing a string quartet probably the highest peak a composer can reach, because a string quartet is something that is so transparent and there’s no color to it.  You listen to it, and the interest in a string quartet is really in that composition.  It has to be.  You can go away and do a lot of crazy things with it just to keep people interested from segment to segment.  But when you write a real piece for strings, it’s got to be a really good composition.  There’s no doubt about it.

BD:   You wouldn’t feel the same way writing, say, for four clarinets
two Bb clarinets, an alto clarinet, and a bass clarinet?

WS:   [Thinks a moment]  I probably would, yes, because I can handle those instruments.  I know the idiom very well.  Strings present a lot of mysteries to me when you really write a full-blown piece of music for them.  I felt comfortable when I wrote a piece for cello, trumpet, and piano called Jazzberries [CD booklet shown above-right].  It turned out very well.  I’ve written pieces for flute, clarinet and viola, but if I’m working with orchestra and the string section, that’s a different thing.  That’s like orchestrating for percussion.  It’s an entirely different idea writing for a percussion group rather than a solo instrument.  A lot of composers don’t understand that.  They treat it like it’s still back in the orchestra.  Percussion can be very delicate, so delicate that you almost reach a degree of thinking of it like the harp and the guitar.  There are a lot of percussion instruments which can be played so delicately that everybody has to be very quiet so you can hear a pin drop, and yet you can build it up.  There’s so much contrast.  There’s such volume but not always.

schmidt BD:   Do you love working with the contrasts in each section?

WS:   Oh, sure, because they’re available, and only in the twentieth century.  Starting probably back the early twentieth century was Stravinsky’s chamber music, and then you get real chamber writing I should say.  There’s always been marvelous percussion writing with orchestra, and timpani writing for orchestra.  This is where the percussionist really has to play equally as a violin.  They have the same technique and musical scope as any other instrument that has a solo repertoire.

BD:   Are the percussionists finally coming to be recognized as musicians?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Rayner Brown.]

WS:   Oh, yes, I should say they are.  There are some percussionists who are just absolutely outstanding.  It’s the same way with many of your brass.  I’ve seen the rise of the brass quintet.  Brass quintets today are considered standard repertoire instrumentation, but there was a time
, when I went to L.A. in 1952, there were only two brass quintetsthe Los Angeles Brass Quintet, which really was the first one, and then the New York Brass Quintet.  New York made the big splash when they did their Carnegie Hall recital and got the attention.  I was working with the Los Angeles Brass Quintet, and Les Remsen was the first trumpet player.  He was the first trumpet player in the Philharmonic at the time, and I became very interested in writing for this quintet.  That was the time when my teacher wrote his Music for Brass Quintet, which is one of the great brass chamber pieces of the twentieth-century.  So I’ve seen it come into its own.  I got terrible reviews for some of my first brass quintets.  They were blasted as being a bastard instrumentation, only to find the same reviewers turn around ten years later and praise the pieces!  I think reviewers have to follow.  The Canadian Brass comes out and does them, and they don’t dare say anything bad about my brass quintetsunless the guys are really just terrible!  You don’t say that this is an illegitimate instrumentation anymore.  You just don’t dare because it’s established.

BD:   So the reviewers are discovering it?

WS:   Yes.  The same happened to the saxophone quartet.  Although that had a pretty early start, it had a longer period to gain recognition.

BD:   I want to be sure and ask about that funny piece for contrabass clarinet.

WS:   Which one?  I have a Sonatina, and I have the Variations on a Whaling Song.

BD:   The Sonatina, which is on the recording.

WS:   I wrote it for that album [jacket-back shown below] because it was a bass clarinet album, and we needed some works for it.  In fact, all the works on that album were written for it, and we published the pieces, of course, in conjunction.

BD:   Have they been performed in concert since then?

WS:   Oh, yes.  The Chopin piece that my wife, Sharon Davis, arranged [Étude Op. 25, #7] is now the piece anybody who auditions [on bass clarinet] for a major symphony orchestra plays, and it started in a very strange way.  We had a call from a fellow
I don’t remember his name, but he’s still in a metropolitan orchestra.  He had heard the album, and said, I need a piece, and there’s nothing in the repertory that I can really play for the conductor that he’d recognize.  It could be maybe The Flight of the Bumblebee, but that’s kind of corny.  I need something that is really a well-known, legitimate piece of music, so would you please airmail me a copy?  He called back a few weeks later and said, I made the audition!  I’m in the orchestra!  That got a lot of people started, and of course that piece is now on all the state contest lists.  Bass clarinetists play it on recitals.  It was very interesting how that came about.  Sharon’s brother is a very fine cellist.  He’s the first cellist in the Pasadena Orchestra, and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, and has been with it for several years under Gerard Schwarz.  [Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]  She used to accompany him around the world on tours, and they did the Glazunov transcription of the Chopin Étude for cello and piano.  One day she said that it would be a neat bass clarinet piece, and that’s the sort of thing we’re doing with our publishing.  We try to make pieces that an instrument doesn’t have any repertoire for, and either write an original work, which is fun to do, or make arrangements.


See my interview with Frank Campo

BD:   Are there some arrangements for multiple baritone saxophones?

WS:   I’ve only done one for two baritone saxophones.  We did a saxophone album, and I arranged the Prokofiev Variations from Lt. Kijé.  It actually can be done by altos, tenors, or baritones, but the baritones have such a marvelous honky sound, and when you get two of them down low like that, in intervals down low, it’s really interesting.  I really like working with the saxophone because that’s my instrument.  I played it for many, many years, and I studied that instrument legitimately.

BD:   Is someone like Branford Marsalis taking this one step further?

WS:   I don’t know.  I haven’t heard his album for soprano saxophone.  I’d be a little curious to hear it, looking at the repertoire he played.  The soprano saxophone’s a very special instrument, and you’ve got to be quite careful how you play it.  If you’ve got a jazz player on it, you’re going to have an entirely different approach than with legit.  I like a really straight forward legitimate sound on the soprano.  I don’t like any of the edgy kind of attenuated jazz sound.  A little vibrato’s fine because that’s the French tradition, but I like a good round nice sound with it, as it can sound really thin if it’s not played well.  That instrument is definitely coming into its own.  I’ll be writing a big work for it one of these days.  I did arrange the Rossini Variations.  He wrote the first set when he was seventeen.  He had it for C clarinet and chamber orchestra, and I transcribed it for soprano saxophone and symphonic winds.  I think half the universities in the country have played it now!  Even clarinet players say it sounds so great with soprano sax.  It just cuts through, and it lies so beautifully.  It’s strange because he wrote for a weird C instrument that didn’t go below a concert C or B-flat.  I don’t know if the instrument he wrote it for didn’t have notes lower, but it’s a delightful set of variations.  It’s very jolly, and it’s quite good.  It’s a work of genius for a seventeen-year-old.  It’s an incredible piece, but it really caught on with the sax, and I was so happy to see that instrument get the showcase.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask a big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

schmidt WS:   I look at music just as I look at poetry or a painting, or theater, all the other arts.  It’s one part of the whole picture.  The lesson I learned when I first went to college is that a person who just listens to music and doesn’t appreciate the other arts is missing a lot of the music.  A novel, a painting, a play, an opera, a symphony, all have form.  They have a beginning, middle, and end.  It can all be beginning sometimes, or ending, and still be successful, but you can pretty well determine a thing’s got form.  If it’s just one long note for half an hour, even if you have a crescendo and a decrescendo, I don’t know if you really can consider that a form.  I’m talking about a more serious piece.  Music plays its part in the world of humanities, and it’s a very important part.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

WS:   Oh, sure, absolutely.  Do you realize the kids today … I have a daughter who was raised on rock, but she listens to serious music, and she turns over to the classical station and she’ll listen to whatever... like a Leonard Bernstein overture, or something in that vein.  She’ll say,
Oh, that’s great!  I like that, and she’ll go back and listen to it again.  Now she listens to jazz, though she didn’t listen to jazz for a long time.  She’s getting to like it, and I see her horizons expanding because this is all available on records, tapes, radio, TV, and even motion pictures.  As limited as it is [in movies] in its use of music, it still brings in sounds to the ear.  It’s a lot easier.  You’d be surprised.  The reason why a lot of people find it tolerable to listen to contemporary musiceven though they don’t understand itis that they hear all these same sounds on TV and motion picture sound tracks, and they don’t find it offensive.  Maybe when they really have to listen to it, they don’t understand it, but I don’t think they say, “That’s nasty, and I don’t like that sound.  It’s just that they don’t understand it.  We’ve gotten over that barrier, really.

BD:   Is concert music something that has to be understood?

WS:   Not necessarily, no.  It’s good if you have the time, or the intellectual capability, to really dig into it.  I know people who just love to analyze these things.  It really excites them, and I encourage them to do it because it’s not only an intellectual exercise, it’s also a physical and emotional thing.  It’s an integrated part of their lives, and a lot of people get into music very deeply, as well as other arts forms.  They may not be too interested in one form or another, and some people are interested in all of them, or are interested only in a little of everything.  It’s really an individual thing.  I don’t think it’s mandatory to understand anything, really.  You go to art galleries, and can look at that painting and say to the curator,
That’s a bunch of garbage!  He’d then ask what you know about it, and if you have a Master’s Degree in art, or ever took courses in art.  I’d say, “Was that necessary?  I just looked at it, and of all the things I’ve looked at and studied and appreciated, I think it’s a bunch of garbage!  [Much laughter]

BD:   But then someone else might come along...

WS:   ...and they’d say they love it, and that it’s really great!  There are a lot of things that pass the test of craftsmanship and professionalism.  There’s also a lot of dull garbage running around.  There’s a lot of that hanky-panky going on, and it’s especially in your big foundations.  They’ll fund anything that they’re afraid of passing up, because if it’s going to become well-known later on, and they weren’t involved with it, it would be bad for them.

BD:   What contributes to making a piece of music
or any kind of work of artgreat?

WS:   [Ponders a moment]  I don’t know...  With pop songs, it’s repetition.  [Both laugh]  Although there are some great pop songs, let’s face it, even a lot of big composers have suffered because they never had any exposure.  The more exposure they get on a piece, the more familiar the public gets, the more they love it... or they get to like it, anyway.

BD:   Are we getting too many young composers coming along today?

WS:   No.  Years ago I used to say,
“It’s really tough out there, and even though someone may be extremely talented, if he doesn’t get the breaks, he’s not going to make a living.  I changed about twenty years ago in that attitude, and I started encouraging people.  Now I encourage them thoroughly.  I say, If you really want to do it, and you really love it, you do it!  You go for it, and if you have to live on 63rd Street in a hostel, you live there for a few years until you grow out of it.  You pay your dues, but if you’re willing to do that, then you’ll do it, and you’ll probably be successful.  Somewhere you’ll find something.  Also, I look at it as being a very political thing.  By suppressing people from finding their water, you just compartmentalize society.  You stratify, and it gets to a point where nothing works.  There’s no fluidity to it.  When the people can afford to send Johnny to school, then he can be successful because they may have the connections to get him a gig.  A lot of times these people are very, very good and talented, but there’s enough of them, let’s face it.  But then, as I said, there’s a lot of dilettantes hanging around!

BD:   Who separates the music that should be heard from the music by the dilettantes?  Is it the audience?  Is it the performers?  Is it the critics?

schmidt WS:   All of them!  Everybody struggles, and even the dilettantes are pushing hard.  I just figure, they’re doing their thing and I’m doing mine.  I can’t go out and say that I don’t like minimalist music, that I think it’s a bunch of garbage and it bores the hell out of me.  There are people that sit and listen to it and get mesmerized.  They just sit there for hours, so okay, do it.  I’m glad.  It’s fine.

BD:   My brother-in-law sings in the chorus at Lyric Opera, and he says if you’re coming to Satyagraha [by Philip Glass, which was being presented at Lyric Opera that season], come stoned.

WS:   [Laughs]  That’s right.  You got it.  You get various opinions.  Most professional musicians just hate the stuff because it’s like playing in the studios.  You play two hours of whole notes, tremolos, and that kind of thing.  Some musicians just don’t care.  They just want the money.  They’re either burned out, or they become jaded.  But a lot of professional musicians really care about what they do and what they play, and they kind of resent it.  But it’s like everything else... you’ve got to give everybody their shot, and let it move forward.  I’m really not concerned because what happens, eventually, is that these things are sorted out
especially today with communications where they are.  A really good composeranother Beethoven or Mozart, and they’re out there somewherewill work through it, because the possibility of making contact with the public is so much greater than it was many, many years ago.

BD:   Through broadcasts and recordings?

WS:   Oh, yes, oh sure.

BD:   This is something else you’ve done in addition to publishing your music.  You make sure a lot of it gets recorded.

WS:   Yes, we record out of our catalogue those pieces that we publish.  I did that because I felt I wanted to encourage people to listen to the pieces well-performed, and not be so scared.  This is every day twentieth-century contemporary music, not anything satiric, just good solid stuff.  But people are a little shy about things when they see a score and they look at it.  Assimilating things is difficult, too.  I can’t do it myself.  People send me scores all the time, and I say forget it.  Send me a tape or something so I can hear it.  You get a general idea, but really can’t hear all that by looking at the score.  I find it very difficult, so by recording these pieces very professionally, they hear them and they’re encouraged.  This is especially for younger players because they hear that someone else did it.  I’ve had this happen many times.  Professionals record really hard pieces, and make a beautiful recording.  Then a kid hears it and think
s it’s a great piece.  So he goes home with my music and practices like mad.  He learns it without going through all the pain and difficulty of it because he just accepts that it’s a good piece.  The mental block has been taken away.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  They don’t know it’s supposed to be hard?

WS:   Yes, that’s it.  They don’t know it’s supposed to be hard.  [Laughs]  It’s a crazy thing, but you find high school kids doing it all the time.  I remember, when I was a kid, or even when I was working at the college, high school kids didn
t play pieces like the Hindemith Clarinet Sonata.  They wouldn’t because their teachers would say that they were difficult, contemporary music.  There was a prejudice.  Now it’s on all state contests.  If you look at any state contestsTexas, New York, Illinois, Wisconsinunder the heading of clarinet, there’s the Hindemith Sonata.  It’s played all the time.  They don’t know it’s a hard piece.  They like it because it’s a great piece to play.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do performers ever find things in your music you didn’t know you’d hidden there?

WS:   It’s kind of embarrassing when someone gets a piece and reviews it, and analyzes it.  They mean well, but when they spend eighteen or twenty pages of analysis on a five-minute work, and find all of these remarkable things that I never even knew were there, it is embarrassing.  [Laughs]  I don’t even read those things.  I just can’t.   I’ll read the first paragraph and I’ll say,
“Forget it!  I don’t want to know about it.  [More laughter]

BD:   What about the practical musician, the performer who plays it?  Do they ever find things in there and bring something out that you didn’t realize, and it sounds even better than you thought?

WS:   Now you’re getting down to performers and Performers.  Most performers, soloists, professionals, are competent.  They play the pieces well, and a lot of times they’ll even listen to a recording of a very famous artist and imitate it, especially if you’re talking about pianists and violinists who have this historical repertoire.  But there are a rare set of musicians, or groups of musicians
Performersaround the world who really look at a piece and make it their own.  They do things to it that really just delight you.  However, I’m against this Glenn Gould sort of thing.  I’m not a fan of things he’s done.  I think they’re a little distorted.

BD:   But that’s just him.

WS:   I could argue whether it’s him.  A lot of people really think it’s great, but there are musicians who really have an innovative approach to playing music
whether it’s old music or new musicand they seem to understand.  That is more in the area of pianists and string players than it is in the area of woodwind and brass players because their repertoire is fairly new, and they’re just really beginning to break out of just the craftsmanship of playing their instrument.  It’s a very interesting idea.  I’m associated with some very good soloists, mostly brass and woodwind players.  Some are on my recordings, and they travel around the world and play.  Often, they will tell me, I stopped in Cleveland (or somewhere), and I took a lesson with the first cellist there.  I just wanted to get his viewpoints on phrasing.  I found that was very smart.  Or they might have a session with a good vocal coach because they realize the limitations of their instrument, and newness of their repertoire.  Also, the teaching methods haven’t quite developed, although they’re really going through a lot of generational ideas.  Tuba players right now are really beginning to show their musicality.  You get away from this unbelievable technique with no brains.  People really think about what they’re playing, and that’s very encouraging. As a result, when you present a work to them they really look at it and they figure things out.  They say they can do this or that with it, and wow does it sound!  This is the reason why I never publish anything until I’ve had a couple of good professional performances, because there are suggestions the players make.  One might say this section in here is really so hard that I can do it, but I can see another player who is not quite as good as I am, who could play it well, but not quite making it, and it wouldn’t sound just right.

BD:   Then you’d go back and revise it?

schmidt WS:   I revise it or rewrite it, and take a suggestion on how to solve that particular fingering, or whatever is necessary.  Then, of course, they make suggestions for phrasing.  Although you can have tons of experience writing idiomatically for that instrument, a really good player can say,
“Hey why don’t you change your dynamics here, and get a little more contrast between this phrase and the next one.

BD:   Are there ever any times that you say, “That’s the way I want it played, so please play it that way?

WS:   Yes, there are times when I said,
“No, I want it that way.  But I really listen to good soloists, good musicians.  I take their advice very seriously.  I don’t consider that I know the last thing about how to write for their instrument.  Nobody does.

BD:   Even your own instrument, the saxophone?

WS:   Even my own instrument!  I played it very professionally.  I started when I was around five or six years old on a sopranino, and I graduated to an alto, and I studied with a man who was from a German conservatory.  He was working in the Blackhawk Theater [now the Merle Reskin Theater of De Paul University].  They had a pit band in those days, and he was the kind of musician who said you’ve got to learn how to transpose all the parts because you’re going to have to do that.  This is the real kind of teaching that is now becoming more prevalent, especially in the United States.  You find a lot of teachers demanding that brass players and woodwind players have to transpose.  They have to be able to do all of these things, but he just did it as a matter of working every day, and was a fine legitimate player.  I never really studied anything.  I learned whatever I learned in jazz by playing in bands, but his was strictly technical and tone studies.

BD:   Today we have all kinds of rock bands.  Is that teaching the same kind of musicality?

WS:   Rock is unto itself.  I find a lot of rock music is pretty primitive, musically.  Some of the messages, and the social satire is great.  I love that because I’m a pacifist.  During the 60s I went to every demonstration they had in Los Angeles.  But rock music per se doesn’t appeal to me as music.  Some of the electronic things that are done, and some of the adaptations which are more adventurous in harmonic schemes are a little more interesting, but it’s taken them so long to do that.  Actually, rock was a kind of retrograde of popular music because it got to be a musically do-it-yourself thing, whereas the social message became very, very important to the period that rock grew up.  We used to play something very similar to rock in the Clark Street strip joints I used to work in when I was a college.  We used to call it Bumps and Grinds.  There wasn’t too much difference to rock.  The line of separation is very thin, but my daughter listens to a lot of it, and she tells me to listen to it.  So, I listen to it and I don’t remember the names of the groups, but one group did something using Prokofiev’s Lt. Kijé Suite.  I thought that was kind of interesting because there was a social message thing, something about the Russians love their children, too.

BD:   Is composing fun?

WS:   Oh, yes, it is.  Actually, the most fun is writing the piece.  That’s the most fun.  Writing music is really the fun of it.  Hearing it is just making sure that what you wrote is right, and it works, and if it works, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of it.  I’m onto something else.  I don’t listen to my recordings, and I don’t listen to my tapes.  The only time I will listen is to hear a work where I did something crazy, or recall something that caught my attention more than anything else I’d ever done before, and I want to hear how I did it.

BD:   I assume you’re pleased when other people pick up your scores.

WS:   Oh, absolutely!  When someone walks into a music store, and orders it, and puts his fifty bucks down, or his ten dollars, or $250 for the trumpet concerto parts, that, to me, is a real honor.  Monetary or not, I consider it an honor because he worked hard for his money.  Nothing nicer could happen to a composer.

BD:   You, also, work hard for your money?

WS:   Oh, sure, I work hard for my money, but it’s a great joy.  I know a lot of people who work hard and they make good money, but they don’t like their work.  They really do not.  They’re very unhappy but they’re trapped.

BD:   You don’t ever feel trapped by music?

schmidt WS:   No, I’m not trapped by that.  I’m doing what I want to do, and as long as I have food on the table and I pay the bills, my expectations are very low.  My wife is the same way, except we are Oriental rug collectors.  We’re good enough collectors that we can go out and spend a hundred dollars when another person has to spend a thousand to get the same thing because we know what we’re buying.  We cannot buy everything, but we do pretty well.  We’ve really made a study of it.  We have a huge library, and through the repetition of purchasing, and knowing dealers and shipping, that’s the only real evil thing I indulge in.  Otherwise, fancy cars and all that sort of thing doesn’t mean anything to me. Those are all materialistic things.  Sharon’s a great musician.  She’s really the musician in the family.  I just admire her.

BD:   Before you have to go, tell me just a little bit about Ingolf Dahl.

WS:   As a musician and a person he was a really marvelous man.  He was so gifted.  I always had the feeling that he had spread himself a little thin because he was working in so many areas.  I would have liked to have seen him either compose, or compose and conduct, or maybe just play and conduct.  He was teaching, and he was playing, and he was conducting, and he was always frustrated because he didn’t have enough time to compose.  Seeing that, I don’t want to get trapped.  I don’t conduct anything.  It hurts me tremendously because people say if I don’t conduct they can’t have me there, because that’s the big deal
to have the composer come in and conduct his own work.  I consider a good conductor a professional, like a good professional composer, and that’s his job.  My only job is to compose the music.  I was able to do a little conducting years ago, but I could see I was not going to be a good conductor.  I wasn’t going to make it.  I’d get my nose in the score, and I’d realize I can’t do that.

BD:   You got too wrapped up in what’s going on?

WS:   Yes, so I don’t want to do that.  I don’t necessarily want to get up there and not do it well.

BD:   But I assume though you’re basically pleased with what you hear?

WS:   Oh, sure.  A good conductor can bring it all out.  Ingolf conducted the L.A. Philharmonic.  I did some work with Paul Glass on motion picture scores that Ingolf conducted, and he was really one of the top professionals in L.A.  They really admired him.  He was a well-thought-of person because he was a cultured European, and he spoke languages.  His wife spoke languages.  They were into art and literature, they read, they studied, and they had this... [hesitates] well, you know how it is.  You look at American women and French women, and the French women still look more feminine to me than American women.  I hate to say that, and I’m going to get shot down for that, but there is just something about certain cultures that radiate an essence that comes out.  You can’t explain it, and of course Europeans have quite a few centuries over us putting it all together.

BD:   What does the American musical culture radiate to the world?

WS:   The thing we offer the world, the greatest American music, is jazz!  Fortunately, that’s something everybody recognizes, because we’re told by foreigners that it’s great stuff.  Americans can’t say it’s cheap nightclub stuff, as they used to.  No, we have some really great jazz composers here.  We have some fine artists and some fine musicians.  Unfortunately, a lot of our singers still have to go over there to make their reputation.  Some can do it here, but it’s still very difficult, and even top woodwind, brass, and string players still have to do their traveling through Europe to get some recognition that seems to rub off over here.  I don’t know why we just can’t accept these people, and let it go at that.  We have a little way to go in the United States, I guess.

BD:   Are we at least going in the right direction?

WS:   Oh, I think so, yes.  We have some marvelous orchestras here, we really do, and our brass players are really first rate.  American brass players are really good.  European orchestras are loaded with them, and they always have been.  Now, the new younger generation of post-World War II European brass players are maturing.  People who are maybe in at least their thirties or maybe their forties are starting to show up.  There are some marvelous soloists who are European raised and bred.  But prior to that, Americans were really dominating many of the orchestra with their playing, and they still do to a great extent.  They’re highly admired.  I’ve been associated with an international trumpet guild, and they commission works from me.  They had a conference in London two years ago, and they always have what they call a student competition.  It’s for college-level students, and they had an international set of judges.  They awarded three prizes, and all three were won by American trumpet players.  They had trumpet players from all over Europe and Russia, everywhere, which really surprised me.  I talked to a friend of mine, who is a trumpet teacher at University of Northern Colorado. and he said our kids still play better than Europeans.  One of his students placed among the finalist, and he won the first prize playing my Trumpet Sonata, which has been played very infrequently.  I guess I haven’t pushed it, but I was glad to hear that because all these international judges are there.  They were big trumpet players from other major orchestras, and all of a sudden this senior from Colorado comes in and blows them away!  I thought that was terrific.

BD:   Thank you very much for coming by today.

WS:   Oh, this has been a pleasure.  I’m glad the earthquake didn’t destroy my house!

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 1, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following June, and again in 1991 and 1996, and on WNUR in 2007 and 2015.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.  Additional gratitude goes to Sharon Davis, who graciously looked over the page, and made several corrections before it was uploaded to the website.  She mentioned that her husband had spoken favorably about this meeting, and she complimented me on the diligence I had shown in getting everything right.

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.