Composer / Author  Elliott  Schwartz

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Elliott Schwartz (January 19, 1936, in New York City - December 7, 2016 in Maine) studied composition with Otto Luening and Jack Beeson at Columbia University (AB 1957, MA '58, Ed.D '62). He also worked privately with Paul Creston. He was the Robert K. Beckwith Professor of Music at Bowdoin College, where he taught since 1964, including twelve years as department chair; from 1988 to 1992 he also held a half-time Professorship of Composition at The Ohio State University School of Music.

schwartz Visiting appointments included Trinity College of Music, London (1967), the University of California/Santa Barbara (College of Creative Studies, 1970, '73, '74), the University of California/San Diego (Center for Music Experiment, 1978-79), and Distinguished University Visiting Professorship at The Ohio State University (1985-86). He spent the fall 1993 and spring 1999 terms at Cambridge University (UK) as holder of a visiting Fellowship at Robinson College.

He has served as President of the College Music Society, National Chair of the American Society of University Composers (now renamed the Society of Composers, Inc.), Vice-President of the American Music Center, President of the Maine Composers Forum, and music panelist for the Maine Arts Council. He was also a board member of the American Composers Alliance.

He kept up with the latest trends. In addition to his works for standard instruments, according to the obituary in the Portland Press Herald, “He composed one piece based on actual Facebook posts, which included musicians reading the posts, while another piece featured TVs and radios on stage with the performers. His 1966 piece “Elevator Music” was performed by 12 small groups on various floors of a building, while the audience rode an elevator and heard parts of the piece on each floor.”

Elliott Schwartz is co-editor of the anthology Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, co-author of Music Since 1945, and the author of Electronic Music: A Listener's Guide; The Symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Music: Ways of Listening. He has also written essays and reviews for Perspectives of New Music, The Musical Quarterly, Musical America, Music and Musicians (England), Nordic Sounds (Denmark) and other publications.

His compositions are published by G.Schirmer-AMP, MMB-Norruth, Theodore Presser, Carl Fischer and ACA. A number of his works are on Folkways, Advance, Orion, Arista and Opus One long-play records. There are also compact disc recordings of his music on the New World, CRI, Innova, Vienna Modern Masters, O.O. Discs, Capstone, North-South Consonance (Albany), Metier and GM labels. Schwartz was a member of BMI.

His wife, Dorothy Schwartz, was an artist, professor and past director of the Maine Humanities Council who was considered a driving force in Maine’s cultural scene for some 20 years. She died in 2014 at the age of 75.

--  Links here and below refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 

As can be seen in the biography above, Elliott Schwartz was extremely busy and prolific in many areas.  His travels brought him to Chicago in April of 1987, and I was privileged to be able to spend an hour discussing various musical subjects with him.

While we settled in for the conversation, he was lamenting the state of collegiate music education in this country . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Okay, what is wrong with the training of teachers on the college level?

Elliott Schwartz:    Oh, God!  Many things are wrong.  Apart from real degrees in music education
the Mus.Ed, or the Ed.Dthose are very rarely applied to people going into higher education.  But apart from those, most graduate students who are doing Ph.D programs or DMA programs are given absolutely no real training about the part of the profession in which they are going to be most engaged, which is usually teaching.  The assumption is that they’re going to be researchers or performers.

BD:    So they start off wanting to do one thing and then wind up getting channeled elsewhere else?

ES:    Yes, they always want to do the other thing.

BD:    Is that good, or is that disappointing?

ES:    If people really took the degree that they’re getting very seriously, and if they took it quite literally, they would always be totally shocked to discover they were teachers.  But the reality is that most people realize that the positions are academic ones, and most people getting Ph.Ds are looking for positions in universities.  But they always seem to have the sense that they’re going to waltz into some advanced research position and never have to teach undergraduates.

BD:    Are there any people that just waltz in?

ES:    No, there are very few.  Most of them get jobs teaching music appreciation and freshman theory for a few years.  Eventually, as they go through the system, perhaps a few of them are able to do exactly what they’d hoped they would do.

BD:    Is that akin to paying your dues?

ES:    More or less, yes.  Something like that!  So that’s part of the problem.  The other problem is simply that administrators who have graduate students in their programs, tend, in a way, to punish them for having an interest in teaching careers.  They are the people who do most solidly in the research aspects of things, and they tend to turn the other way when people are preparing to teach.

BD:    Do you teach composition?

ES:    I teach a little bit of everything because I’m at a smaller college.

schwartz BD:    Is that more satisfying to get involved in all kinds of things in music?

ES:    It’s great fun for me because I’m working with a constituency that might consist of future musicians
people who will go out and into the profession.  But again, the great bulk of the students that I have go on to become doctors and lawyers and teachers and ministers and businessmen and bankers, and patrons of the arts.

BD:    That’s the secret then
— making them patrons of the arts?

ES:    Yes.  I hope they become patrons of the arts at least.

BD:    I would assume that what we need is more audience rather than more musicians.

ES:    In a sense we’re getting more of them.  That’s the constituency of most people who teach.  If we were to devote all of our time just to future musicians, we’d be ignoring an enormous block of people.  We just can’t afford to do that, so I work with both kinds.

BD:    Are we turning out too many violinists and composers and theoricians?

ES:    [Somewhat amused]  Who’s to say how many is too many, or when the next superstar might have been ignored because you put a ceiling on the number.  We’re not turning out too many of them, though I would like to think at the same time that part of their training is that their expectations aren’t being built up to the point where they regard themselves as failures if they don’t become superstars.  It would be nice if they realized that as trained musicians their lives in the musical world can go in so many unpredictable directions
which could all be very pleasant and very gratifying — and that they don’t have to just assume they have to be signed on by the largest agency and make millions and millions of dollars to succeed!

BD:    Is this part of the fault of the public
that they expect and equate success with superstardom?

ES:    In a way that’s partly it, and partly that we all come to regard music as an activity that is done for us by other people, rather than thinking that everyone’s capable of going out and doing it himself or herself.  You hire somebody who will do it for you, and you get hired mercenaries.

BD:    So you regard music as a participatory activity?

ES:    It should be, and this ought to be one of the chief aspects of any comprehensive musical education program
a sense of installing in everyone the feeling that what’s most exciting about music is that everybody does it at some level of competency (or incompetency), or just that everybody does it, and everybody can have an enormously arching experience doing it.

BD:    Do you think that bankers and lawyers and everyone else should have a couple of courses in music?

ES:    Oh yes, very much so.  Sometimes the best people to actually go out and make sure that gets done are composers.  I have a very chauvinistic view of the composer’s role, in that I think composers are absolutely great as proselytizers and as people who can go out and meet the public half way.  In a sense, that is the nature of our profession.  But many of us are more accustomed to laymen trying to explain some of the mysteries of music in ways that don’t insult the intelligence but, at the same time don’t totally load you down with jargon so that you don’t understand what we’re talking about. 

schwartz BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, do you take into consideration the public that will be listening to it?

ES:    I do, yes.  I can’t vouch for the fact that everybody else does.  I would like to be writing for a public. 
‘Drawbackisn’t quite the word I’m thinking of, but there’s a flaw in that logic.  Once I’ve said that, I realize that I’m saying something that’s loaded with contradictions and all kinds of built-in situations.  Even though I would like to write for a public, and try to imagine what somebody out in the fifth row of the orchestra seats would feel when responding to some music that he or she had never heard before, the only person I really know very well is myself, so I have to imagine myself out there.  Of course that’s a loaded situation, and in fact I don’t necessarily claim to know how everybody out there in the audience is going to respond.  I do try to think of a piece in terms of how that intelligent lay person out there in the audience would be responding, even though I have to admit, again, that I’m probably the wrong one to think about that.  It might be some lay person with an enormously sophisticated music background who’s heard an awful lot of music, but I’m not composing for composers.

BD:    Are some?

ES:    Oh yes, I know some people who are.  I’m not composing for an audience of a super-specialists, and I’m not composing with the sole message that I’m conveying the musical structure.  That message is more than how the piece was made!

BD:    In your music, or music in general, where the balance between art and entertainment?

ES:    [Thinks a moment]  That’s a difficult question!  I would imagine it starts out being all entertainment.  The function of art is to divert, to stimulate.  Somehow I don’t think of
entertainment as being necessarily mindless or exclusively amusing.  We’ve certainly allowed ourselves to be shocked and depressed and moved by the movies we see and the novels we read, and so on.  If you think of all of that as entertainment, yes, I would like to be able to manipulate and audience.  I don’t think that’s a bad word, to ‘manipulate them in such a way that I can surprise and shock and stun and amuse and stimulate, and perhaps do all those things in the same piece.  But I do expect some sort of visceral reaction to a piece, and I would imagine that by my standards of experience it ought to be entertaining.  I really think of the kind work that I do, or that any of my colleagues do, is necessarily art.  I’m not sure I even like the connotations of the word art.  It’s one of those words like ‘beauty’ that people just don’t use much anymore.  It’s got all the wrong connotations. 

BD:    So it’s the music’s fault, or the public’s fault, or just time’s fault?

ES:    I wish I could tell you where I read it, but there was a marvelous article somewhere that compared the aestheticians view of
art as the beautiful to the pedestal men used to put women on; you know, the chivalrous attitude of admiring at a distance, which was a way in both cases of never really coming to grips with the objects.  They were always dealing with them so respectfully and so worshipfully that you would really rob them of all their humanity and all the interesting aspects about them.

BD:    So then we shouldn’t worship your music or any music?

ES:    No, no, I’m not saying that at all.  I would imagine, though, when you begin thinking of pieces of music as beautiful, you’re not responding to them anymore.  It means you’ve attached a label to them and then you file them away in the part of your brain that says ‘beautiful’.  I would just assume that they’re living, and they’re vibrant, and they get people angry, and they make people laugh.  They stimulate real responses rather than aesthetic ones, which I don’t think are real.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about your career.  You’ve got teaching activities, and composing activities, and administrative activities.

ES:    A little bit of everything!  

BD:    Do you get enough time to compose?

ES:    Yes and no.  Obviously nobody gets enough time to compose.  I’ve never met a composer that says
Yes, I have just enough time to compose!  I get as much time as I can make for myself.  I’ve been teaching at Bowdoin College now for twenty-four years, and over the last half of that period, more often than not I’ve been Chairman, which means a fairly heavy administrative lot.  But I also have gotten fairly involved in a variety of musical organizations; service organizations for composers which, in one way or another, tend to be groups of college professors interested in music, or groups of composers who teach on campuses.

BD:    Do college professors who also compose intermingle freely with composers who do not have academic positions?

ES:    Sure!  That’s why the American Society of University Composers, ASUC, which was the group that I’ve been National Chairman of now for a while, just decided to change its name and take the word ‘university’ out of it.  We’ve discovered that about a third of our membership have no academic affiliation at all.  [The group issued several recordings under its original name, two of which are shown at the end of this interview.]

BD:    Call it now just ASC?  [American Society of Composers]  [It became SCI, as shown below.]


ES:    Well, no.  We have to do something else as it turns out. The initials ASC would have brought us into trouble with ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers].  It’s very difficult finding a new name for a society because you really have to start going down the list of all the existing names, and find something that is unique...

BD: avoid trademark infringement!

ES:    Yes, that’s right, exactly!  [More about this subject later in our conversation.]

BD:    This makes me wonder, when you’re composing, do you ever worry about musical infringement the way we’re talking about copyright infringement and trademark infringement?

ES:    [Thinks a moment]  It really depends upon how literally you are using someone else’s material, and whether you’re using that material in such a way that you want to take advantage of its familiarity.  Is it some way that you’re trying to use the image and the associations and all the cultural baggage that goes with this other material, because it’s part of a collage or part of a piece that has to do with memory?  It has all kinds of associations.  But if you’re just being influenced by someone else’s material, or you really admired something, or you found a solution to a problem that’s been bugging you, then it is probably fine to use somebody else’s piece.  I would imagine that most composers are constantly borrowing, but they’re doing it in ways that I wouldn’t consider plagiarism at all, because they’re filtering it through their own technique and their own consciousness, and their own preferences about notation.

BD:    Then are they really borrowing, or are they just arriving at the same thing?

ES:    If they were honest they would admit that they are indebted to some other piece for having supplied them with the answer to some pressing compositional problem.  But when it’s been translated and filtered through their own way of doing things, I don’t think even the composer of the original piece would have recognized the fact that it’s been used.  So in that sense, again, it’s not plagiarism.  If in fact you are going to take a chunk of someone else’s piece of music and use it in your own piece
especially if it’s something that is under copyrightyou obviously run a great risk of getting into big trouble, unless you get permission, and unless you write to the publisher for the source and ask if you can quote a fragment of so and so’s tune.

BD:    For a specific purpose?

ES:    Yes, for a new piece.  That occasionally happens, especially when a number of us are using more and more little fragments of pop tunes in our music.  I can think of at least half a dozen examples off hand of so-called serious concert pieces in the art music tradition that are using fragments of pop music, and in all those cases I would imagine the composer got the permission to do that.

BD:    Are we blurring the line between concert music and pop music?

ES:    We may be, but that line was artificially drawn a hundred years ago. 

BD:    Is it good to be getting rid of that barrier?

ES:    It feels more natural to be getting rid of the barrier.  I’m not quite sure how one can define a distinction between art music and pop music now in the 1980s, other than saying that the one makes money and the other doesn’t.  But there are certainly lots of aspiring pop composers who have made it big, but who are not in that sense zillionaires.

BD:    But are they trying to contribute to art, or are they trying to make a million dollars?

ES:    They’re trying to make the million dollars, yes.  You might be able to then come up with some distinction based on whether one’s intent is financial gain as opposed to something else.

BD:    What is the intent of the music of Elliott Schwartz?

schwartz ES:    Oh!  [Laughs, then thinks again]  It pleases a hypothetical audience which, of course, starts with myself, and then all of the others that I imagine who I think are out there.  Occasionally I surprise myself when I discover there really are some people out there!  I would like to give us all some pleasure, and to provide playable music for performer-friends of mine.  I think of them as another kind of audience, a very special audience.  These are people who enjoy performing new music, and who in fact act as a second wave of, let’s say, missionaries going out to proselytize for the cause of new music, twentieth-century music.  In certain ways I’ve been more of a popularizer rather than innovator.  I would never think of myself as somebody known for daring, cutting edge, once-in-a-lifetime ideas.  [Like a side-show barker] 
“Be the first on your book to have this brand new idea!  In fact, I am just the opposite.  Over the years I’ve spent most of my professional life either as a teacher or as a composer in trying to digest and synthesize a number of trends and issues and developments, to try and make them fairly accessible to a broad audience of interested and intelligent laymen.  I do this as a teacher at Bowdoin College, and I do this for an audience of a music appreciation via my textbooks.  I do this every time I write program notes, or whenever I speak to a group of symphony subscribers.  I obviously do this in my own music, and I hope that the music itself acts as a way of pulling together strands of different sorts that have all been various ways of my tying together aspects of what’s happened in the twentieth century.  I am making them fairly accessible I imagine, or at least I hope, to some segment of that audience out thereagain, not necessarily an audience of other composers, but an audience of laymen.

BD:    Do you enjoy your music, especially that which you come back to after ten, fifteen, twenty years?

ES:    Oh, yes, though I sometimes I wished I had done something different.

BD:    Then do you go and write a new piece that’s a little different?

ES:    Sometimes I learn from my past mistakes.  I’m often surprised when I hear really early pieces that are twenty years old.  I’m surprised in both positive and negative ways at what I hear.  Part of me wonders how I could have done something so stupid, that terrible, and then another part of me might be amazed I was that good twenty years ago to pull together something that is actually rather nice.  In both senses, it’s possibly the knowledge of coming across something that I’d forgotten, but it is an old friend.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise scores?

ES:    No, I don’t do that.  I use old scores in new pieces when I have taken fragments of my early music and put them into the stew again!

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Do you write your publisher and get permission to quote your own material?

ES:    [Laughs]  I’ve never gotten permission to do that!  I probably should.  I guess I’m plagiarizing myself!  It’s never occurred to me to do that!  That would be an interesting legal wrestle, wouldn’t it?  I shouldn’t say this on the air, but I have probably taken fragments of early pieces which have been published by publishing house X, and used them in a piece which then becomes published by publishing house Y!  I’m such small potatoes in the big music world that I don’t think anyone’s going to worry about it!  But coming across very old pieces is really like meeting an old friend, someone you’re forgotten, and it’s also coming across a permanent record of yourself at a much earlier stage.  It’s very much like running across a twenty-year old photograph of yourself, and not remembering that I looked like that!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you write mostly on commission, or is it just because you have to write the piece?

ES:    It’s mostly on commission.

BD:    How do you decide which commissions you’ll accept and which ones you’ll decline?

schwartz ES:    Some of them have deadlines
that is actual dates which must be honoredotherwise there is no commission.  That is the piece isn’t going to be played if it’s not played on the date that it’s due.  What happens in my case is that I usually know, certainly a year or two head, what is due for the future and which ones I have to attack.  The question is which things you’re going to accept.  The timetable is that you’re going to do the piece first which is due first, but I suppose your question might be if a new offer comes up.

BD:    Right.

ES:    If it’s just for some piece due at some indeterminate time in the future, you just either say yes or no, depending upon how attractive the project is, and then you put it at the end of the line.  But if the offer involves you breaking the schedule
— if some piece wants to get in the middle of the queue and spoil the neat orderly line — then the decision is simply how much money am I being paid.  If you’re offered something that’s lucrative and warrants doing, then I would do it.  Some commissions, I should say, do involve money.  Other commissions involve the promise of a performance at a really good site.

BD:    I would think the promise of performance in some cases is worth more than just a few dollars.

ES:    Sure, yes.  Some commissions may involve the promise of a recording somewhere instead of money.  Some involve all three, in which case you have the best of all possible worlds. 

BD:    When you start out a piece, do you know the length of performance?

ES:    Not always.  Sometimes the range is one of the conditions of the original commission or agreement, so I know at the beginning because the person I’m composing the piece for wants a specific duration.

BD:    They will ask for fifteen minutes?

ES:    They want a fifteen-minute piece, or something that moves from seven to ten, or ten to twenty.

BD:    If then they ask for fifteen minutes, is thirteen too short and is seventeen too long?

ES:    There are times when I would have to ask myself questions like that in the middle of composing because the proportions are moving in directions that I hadn’t counted on.  But when things seem to be going so well, I really don’t want to spoil what’s happening.  So I might speak to the person who wanted the piece originally, and ask if things aren’t going as we planned, is this okay?  Or I might just go ahead and let the piece do what it does, and present a fait accompli, and say this piece is two minutes longer than you wanted or five minutes shorter.  It’s not likely that some drastic change is going to occur.  It’s not likely that the piece will be twice as long as the person wanted.  If that happens, then you’ve got to start doing your job correctly because you’re missing the whole point of the person’s request!

BD:    When you look at a piece, or a commission, do you know how long it will take you to write it?

ES:    I get a general feeling.  I can’t say it
’s instinctive, but it’s the result of years of experience.  Usually I have a general sense of the amount of time it would take me if I have really uninterrupted stretches of time with no teaching obligations, no administrative work, no books or articles to write, no tours to take...  [Chuckles] 

BD:    Sounds luxurious!

ES:    Yes.  If that’s the situation, I could probably complete the bulk of the piece within about two months.  If it’s meant to be a major piece, a full evening’s piece, I don’t do many of those, frankly.  I seem to work within certain dimensions that I feel much more comfortable with than the full evening one.  I would imagine my typical piece runs somewhere between ten and twenty minutes.  So given that as a length, I can usually get most of that worked out, sketched, fleshed out, in some cases it’s completed, say, within two months given no distractions.  If I’m in a typical situation where I am doing all those other things, then it may stretch on for six or eight months, just bit by bit until I get it done.

BD:    Do you ever work on more than one piece at a time?

ES:    Not really, no.  I’ve occasionally written pieces and written books and articles at the same time.

BD:    But that’s different.

ES:    Yes, that’s very different, and also very often the work I’m doing on a particular book tends to help the composition of a particular piece.

BD:    It helps you to focus on it?

ES:    It helps me focus, but I also may be doing research for a book and run into an idea or a historical precedent, or even occasionally a quote
a passage of someone else’s musicwhich tends to stimulate me to think about something that I might not have thought of before.


BD:    When you’re working on a piece of music, how do you know when it is finished?

ES:    You’re asking very difficult questions!  Very often you don’t know.  You probably know after the first performance whether you handled the sense of closure.  Both beginnings and endings are really terribly difficult, and you see whether you handled those gestures correctly and whether you used your time wisely.  You can sense all of that in looking at a score, and you can sense it during the rehearsals for a piece, but you really only know it during the performance of the piece.  You know when you’ve finished when in some way the material seems to want to tell you that the time has come.  In my case, I very often begin pieces not knowing how they’re going to end, not knowing what the end is going to be.  I imagine novelists and playwrights or poets do that, too.  Then somewhere along, usually about the middle or the two-thirds point or the three-quarters part of the piece I begin to get some sense of what I think the ending should be.  By this I mean what, in my opinion, a proper ending would be for everything that’s happened so far.  Then I begin aiming for it, hovering around it, moving to one side and another side of it, and backing up as though it were a target, and beginning to take aim at it.  Eventually I know how I’m going to get there.  Then I always reach that moment where I scream to my wife that I know how I’m going to do it!  I know it’s going to happen at that point.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music?

ES:    Yes, in general!  They’re not perfect, but nothing is!  By and large, the performances I’ve gotten are enthusiastic, very committed, very dedicated.

schwartz BD:    Would it spoil it to be perfect?

ES:    Then it wouldn’t be a live performance.  It would be a canned performance.  I’m not sure how you define
‘perfect’ in the context of live performance anyway.

BD:    Well, you said it wasn’t perfect but it was enthusiastic.

ES:    Saying it wasn’t perfect meant it occasionally had notes are bobbled and rhythms are not quite where they should be.  But that is the instance of a live performance.  The performer puts himself or herself on the line, and walks a tightrope and meets a challenge and the pressures of the occasion.

BD:    [Playing Devil
’s Advocate for a moment]  Yet so much of the lives of the general public are involved in canned performances.  We listen to radio, we listen to records, we hear things everywhere and we see things on the television that have been manipulated and molded to this perfection.

ES:    Again, I don’t even know if I would use the word ‘perfection’ there.  People who listen to music in that way are listening to something that’s been very carefully shaped so that those things that can be measured.  The pitches and durations and so on conform to printed score as much as possible
assuming this is the sort of music that has a printed score — and very often in doing that a lot of spontaneity and life and challenge and mystery of performance is lost.  If you play that recording a second time, it sounds exactly the same, which is a total bore.  There’s no point in carrying two things that sound the same.  Life is too short for that!

BD:    Even if you enjoyed it once and you want to enjoy it again the same way?

ES:    Find a different way of doing it.  Turn the lights out the second time around, or invite a different friend in to hear the record the second time, but just don’t duplicate the situation.  It really should be unique every time it occurs.  Most of my work is intended for live performance at a very fundamental level, and I enjoy the idea of live human performers in a space.  I like the kinds of motion that performers go though as they make instruments sound.  I like the sort of dance they have to go through by moving their forearms up and down, or moving their hands across the keyboard.  I like the way the instruments themselves look.  They’re beautiful objects of sculpture.  The person who experiences most music via the loudspeaker or headset is missing all of that, all of the wonders of seeing music being made.  The person is also missing what I consider to be one of the most important aspects of musical experience, which would be the social aspect.  In going to a live concert, the person has actually taken the trouble to put on shoes and a neck tie, and taken a train or a taxi, or even walked five miles to some other space, and joined the company of a few hundred or a few thousand other people.  There’s a kind of mass experience which I think is essential to most music.

BD:    So then you believe in music not necessarily as a participatory sport, but as a communal art?

ES:    Yes, as a social one, as a ritual one, as a ceremonial activity.  The very nature of the symphony orchestra simply entails that there are about a hundred people on a stage, and the space that’s going to be filled up by the sound those hundred people make is a very big one.  In order to make it economically feasible usually means filling it up with about three thousand people.  So the fact that somebody’s going to listen to a Mahler symphony on a table model radio in his or her kitchen doesn’t spoil the experience, but it has, in fact, converted it into a different experience.  The person is really hearing a piece of electronic music rather than a live event.  There are so many ways in which the experience has been altered...  The sounds are coming out of one source rather than a hundred; certainly the visual aspects are missing, as are the social ones and the ritual ones; that great sense of anticipation that one feels in the concert hall is missing.  All those things are totally gone.  That’s one of the wonders of electronics.  I was involved in a panel of composers, and we were talking about the history of music and the twentieth century.  We were all trying to assess what happened in our profession for the last eighty years or so, and I came up with the idea that there were perhaps two really important events.  Both of them were important for me because they altered the perceptions and the sensibilities of audiences and composers.  They altered our sense of continuity and our sense of how time passes, and our sense of aesthetic ritual.  One of them was the discovery of non-Western music by Europeans.  I said, half-jokingly, that we should make a big anniversary celebration in the year 1989, which would be the centennial of the Paris Exposition of 1889, which is where the gamelan first appeared in France.  It was heard by Debussy and Mahler, and by a great many other Europeans.  The second would be the invention of the tape recorder and the long playing record in the late 1940s.  So somewhere around 1997 or ’98 we should have a fiftieth anniversary of that, because I think that really totally altered perceptions in many ways.  We’ve just be discussing one of those ways
the fact that you can hear various kinds of music in ways which were really totally unintended.

BD:    Yet it so broadens the amount of material that you can hear!

ES:    That’s the other aspect.

BD:    That’s the upside.

schwartz ES:    Yes.  In a sense they’re both upsides.  I’m not claiming that either is an up or a down, but in one sense, some of my music tends to be a response to what I perceive as the negative effects of the last big revolution, because I really try to stress live performance versus canned performance.  In another sense you could say that a very different aspect of my music is a positive response to the fact that audiences today have heard a wider variety of music than probably any generation in history.  You could go to any record shop and have in the bins all kinds of ethnic musics and folk musics, and non-Western musics and Early Renaissance musics, Avant-Garde musics, as well as the complete symphonic literature.  You just go on and on and on and on!

BD:    At what point does the mountain become too much?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, also see my interview with Max Lifchitz.]

ES:    Of course, most people don’t take advantage of that wonderful, world, but the point is that they have heard more than their parents or grandparents ever heard.  We do tend to limit our intake by our own tastes, and by the amount of time available.  No one is going to make a conscientious effort as though you’re doing some kind of regimental diet.  I will listen to any new kind of music every day, but most people don’t do that.  However, just as a matter of course we’ve all heard so much more music than other generations would have, that we have become a very sophisticated breed of listeners.  Some of us do it more consciously than others, but in my own work
— and I share this with a lot of other composerswhether consciously or subconsciously, there are many composers who are using a very eclectic bag of materials in their own work.  Some of this is tonal, some atonal, some sound like Victorian Parlor Songs, some sound like Webern, some sound like Penderecki.  Some of it sounds like jazz because you either consciously or subconsciously realize that we have audiences out there that have heard a huge variety of music, and we can use a wider variety of materials to manipulate than composers of another generation could have. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We were talking about where music has been coming from, so let’s continue the line.  From the viewpoint of someone who looks at all kinds of music, where is music going?

ES:    [With modesty]  I have no great track record for prophecy.  I think I’d forget everything I said about five minutes after I’ve said it.  If you ask me tomorrow, I’d probably give you a different prophecy!  That said, our knowledge of musics of the rest of the world
that is, musics of other cultures, the whole range of musics other than Western art music, such as the classical musics of India and China, all the aural traditions, ethnic traditions, vernacular musics, popular musicsthat our acquaintance with those and our knowledge of those is probably going to increase.  When I say ‘our’, I mean seriously better-trained classical conservatory-trained musicians will find that the Western art tradition simply has to squeeze in a little bit and make room for all those other things that we’re still learning about other traditions.  I should add to that the avant-garde tradition, the maverick traditions of Cage (1912-1992), and Partch (1901-1974), and Nancarrow (1912-1997).

BD:    Do you see it as a squeezing or an expanding?

ES:    I suppose it could be either one!  Yes, you could say that it’s an expanding just as easily.  Somehow I thought of it as a squeezing because in certain ways we would have to make room for all of that added exposure and experience.  And perhaps in some way I think the Western art music tradition needs a bit of squeezing.  Perhaps we spend so much time on it we really need to give it short shrift.  It deserves it after all these years.  Certainly in another century, but maybe even in another few decades, it would really be impossible to say that a piece of music flies in the face of tradition, that it’s avant-garde.  In fact, it may be impossible to say that now because, no matter what you do, you’ve tapped into one of those many, many, many traditions, and each individual composer makes a very personal fusion of certain aspects of those traditions.

BD:    So then nobody gets anything new or original?

ES:    Our perceptions are individual ways of fusing them together, and in a sense you think of the avant-garde as a new language and rhetoric.  Perhaps in that sense we may have reached the point where there’s nothing new.  That may be a good thing, but there will always be people saying new things
making unusual statements or provocative statements, or surprising statementsand using a greatly expanded language which in fact draws upon all these traditions.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

ES:    Oh, I think you have to be, yes!

BD:    [Somewhat surprised]  You sound very reluctant about that!

ES:    No, no, I just really can’t imagine not being optimistic about it!  Music has always been a part of the life of the human species.  I don’t think there are any societies without music.  No, I’m sure there must be one somewhere.  [Bursts out laughing]  Some anthropologist is going to write saying that there is one.  I just can’t think of any peoples here on Earth that have not had some way of dealing with their rituals and their own ceremonies and their own moments of celebration in terms of sound and time.  There are societies that perhaps do not use the word ‘music’ or anything that can roughly be translated as ‘music’ because for them very possibly the total ritual activity would embrace dance and words and music and action in costumes, and everything else is so fused that it is one.  But I can’t think of in any society that does not have that kind of approach to ritual activity, and if that’s the case, then we’ll always have music!

BD:    Have you written for the voice?

schwartz ES:    Very little.

BD:    Why?

ES:    That’s a long story.  There are a number of reasons that I could have answered the call.  The simplest one is that I tried it and didn’t like it.  The only vocal pieces in my own list of works are very early ones which are virtually never performed.  T
here are a number of pieces where my performers speak, and by performers I mean members of a string quartet, or the players in a symphony orchestra or in a concert band.  They may whisper, they may use words, they may suddenly become actors in the sense that my use of words has moved into that dimension.  What I very rarely do is employ the singing voice.  That’s a completely different situation. 

BD:    You have worked with electronics?

ES:    I’ve worked with electronics, yes.

BD:    Is that for use of just electronics, or to expand the possibilities of your palette?

ES:    There are a number of reasons.  [Laughs]  Again, all of your questions are so good that I really need to have four or five answers to each one!  I found that electronic tape was one more dimension at one stage in my work of exploring unusual sounds.  At another stage, or at another level, it was way of exploring unusual situations for performance on stage.  I wanted to see how live human performers would respond to these disembodied sounds coming out of little black boxes.  To a certain degree, my fascination with electronic music
apart from soundshas always been a theatrical one.  It’s the boxes themselves that have interested me in the sense that the speakers are more than any sounds coming out of them. 

BD:    You’re creating something for those speakers, not just letting them produce sounds?

ES:    I wanted something for the speakers to have.  It’s their role is play.

BD:    As opposed to a Mahler symphony coming out of those same speakers?

ES:    Right, but if a Mahler symphony were to come out of those speakers in the context of a chamber piece, there’d be a wonderful kind of influence that you could set up.  It really doesn’t matter what the sounds are in one sense, because the theater
the visual aspect and the psychological aspect and the dramatic sense of having ‘the box’ and the live human being interacting with each otheris more important than any individual sound.  That’s one way of looking at it.  On another level, the actual placement of those boxes is not only a dramatic factor and a visual one, but it’s an acoustic one.  You can have the boxes high up on a ceiling; you can have them on stage; you can have them in all four corners of the hall; you can stick them under the seats of the audience members if you wish.

BD:    This is a technical thing.  You could also have the flute player up in the balcony, or the trumpet coming from backstage.

ES:    Yes, but for me that is a very important factor.  I would find it very exciting, and it might be something that would stimulate me to create a certain kind of piece and not another piece.  Those sorts of considerations are as critical as the choice of an E-flat instead of G for a particular passage.  Then in another sense
obviously to contradict everything I’ve just saidit does matter what sounds come out of the speakers.  If you really want to take the maximum advantage of whatever psychological or dramatic or acoustical situation you’ve set up, you want to find the passage that best tends to create the effect that you wanted to create in the first place.  So you’re reduced to eventually having to think about sounds.

schwartz BD:    Are you then a creator, or are you merely a controller?

ES:    Oh, a bit of both!  I’m not sure that there’s much of a distinction.  In many ways, we as composers are not only choosing sounds and durations, but we’re also stage managers.  We all tend to choreograph our pieces.  We make very, very basic decisions when we say that we’re going to compose a string quartet, and we decide that all four players are going to sit in the conventional arrangement on a stage because now some other options are available.  If we’ve chosen to do that, then we’ve made a statement about something whether we knew it or not, and there are composers who would want to deal with that situation by altering it.

BD:    A couple of your works are called ‘extended’Extended Piano, Extended (this or that instrument).  Did you feel confined by the original limitations of the piano?

ES:    No, I simply felt that by adding the electronic dimension I had extended the instrument; that in some way the piano or the clarinet or the oboe or whatever it was, had become a super-piano, super-oboe, etc.  It wasn’t in any sense a feeling that the original acoustic is in some way inferior, but simply a desire to see it move into another dimension.

BD:    Just to do more?

ES:    In some way to transcend whatever the nineteenth century definition of that instrument had been.

*     *     *     *      *

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

ES:    Yes, given my very ambivalent feelings about recordings anyway.  For every piece that’s issued on a recording, I would say that if I had my druthers, I would prefer that the piece be perceived by an audience in a live situation.  If I had to choose between the two, I would say,
Oh, don’t listen to the record.  Come and see the piece performed next Thursday at such-and-such hall.  But I realize that the way most people do hear music, and the way most composers get their exposure to a large audienceas we’re doing now in this radio situationis by hearing music through loudspeakers.  I’m very thankful for the existence of recordings and loudspeakers.  [Laughs]

BD:    So it’s not a poor second, it’s a good second?

ES:    It’s not even a second!  It becomes a different experience.  The recording of a piece is not a reproduction of the piece, it is something else.  It’s almost like the situation where you have those pieces, for instance, by Brahms, in which one of them is the version for this ensemble, and the other one is the version for another ensemble.

BD:    The Haydn Variations, Op. 56a is for orchestra and 56b is for two pianos.

ES:    Yes, or when you have something like fresh asparagus versus canned asparagus.  They’re not the same vegetable at all, and they both are very nice, but they really do have a completely different kind of taste.  I’m not going to say that one is inferior to the other...

BD:    Just different!

ES:    I’d like people to become more aware of the fact that a live performance of a piece really has little in common with the recording of that piece.  In fact, the recording of that piece has more in common with any other record than it does with the piece it’s supposed to be a recording of.  I really think live performance and canned performance are both equally valid and really equally exciting, and the potential for composers to exploit the virtues of both is equally high.  We make a mistake when we assume that one is a version of the other.  I really think they are distinctly different.

BD:    Let’s come back to your reason for being here right now, the annual conference of the American Society of University Composers.  You say it is changing its name?

schwartz ES:    It will be called The Society of Composers Inc., I guess.

BD:    SOC!  [As shown above, it became SCI, and as seen at right, they continued to issue recordings.]

ES:    I have no idea what acronym is going to come out of that.  For a while I would imagine that the American Society of University Composers and the Society of Composers might be hyphenated in the same way that the League of Composers-ISCM had been hyphenated over the years, simply so that there’ll be a sense of continuity, and people will realize they are the same organizations.

BD:    Like AFL-CIO?  [American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations]  [Both laugh]

ES:    I don’t know the history of those two so I really couldn’t tell you, but there was a real feeling on the part of the membership that the old name did not reflect the fact that a good many of our members are not affiliated with colleges and universities, and it didn’t reflect the fact that a number of our members are Canadians.  To be called ‘American’, in some way you’re imposing a bias upon it.

BD:    Use
North American?

ES:    Well, there are Latin Americans that would love to be included as well, and other people who’ve expressed interest in the Society. 

BD:    [Positing yet another idea] 
Western Music Alliance.

ES:    Yes, exactly!  [Jokingly]  The World Galaxy.  One other concern is the various institutions and foundations, the potential sources for funding that we occasionally approach for grants.  We suspect at least it might be more likely for them to listen to our story if we did not have the name ‘university’ in our title.  There’s been a feeling in the past that any institution that has the name ‘university’ in its title has a lot of money.  You go to universities and be funded, you know.

BD:    Partly, then, it’s marketing?

ES:    To a certain degree.  But about twenty-three years ago, the label ‘university composer’ seemed to connote for many of us a badge of courage, a badge of honor, and a feeling that many of us felt that the cutting edge of what most exciting about music was taking place on the campuses.  If you think of the mid-
60s, to a certain degree this is very true.  There were lots of new music groups, and new music ensembles just starting springing up on so many campuses.  Many major composers were working as composers-in-residence at various colleges and universities, and in a sense the greatest patron of new music was very likely to be the university.  So our audiences were to be found there, and that, in fact, was our home.  Then over the years the audience for music has broadened.

BD:    Is that a good thing?

ES:    Oh, yes!  Perhaps the hostility that the composer and the lay audience had evolved throughout the first half of the twentieth century, which really peaked in the
60s.  That has now eased off, and there are more and more cases where you find the symphony subscriberspeople who wouldn’t go near a campusbeginning to find themselves getting more and more involved in new music.  In a sense, the cutting edge has perhaps also moved elsewhere, so that’s another of the innovative things that have been going on in the last ten years that has not been happening on campuses.  So you put that all together, and some composers would then feel that the designation ‘university composer’ is one that would tend to convey a very misleading kind of image to the outside worldone of fussy, academic, stuffy, very conservative ideas, and that’s not true.  Most of my colleagues who are university composers are, in fact, composing very exciting music.  Whereas in the 60s you assumed that to be the case, in the 80s people think about all those non-academics who are composing, such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass.  Then there are stuffy people who teach at colleges, and they’re not doing anything exciting there.  So that’s the image problem which we felt needed to be attacked head-on, because the fact is that most university composers really are engaged in their own way in all of the major new developments.  Everything that’s been going on in the last ten or twenty years has certainly affected our work. 

schwartz BD:    Now what is this special conference you’re here for this week?

ES:    I’m now here as a part of a study group that the College Music Society has put together.  It is one of two study groups, and the one I’m involved with is looking at the music curriculum in higher education, and its problems and needs for the future, as well as ways in which we might consider meeting those needs.  Some of those needs have to do with a few of the issues we were talking about
the fact that all those other world musics and ethnic musics, and vernacular music outside the tradition of Western art music that is clamoring for attention is, in some way, beginning to enter the curriculum anyway.  We have to figure out how to deal with them.

BD:    So you’re not acting, you’re reacting?

ES:    [Laughs]  Perhaps if we run fast enough to get to the head of the line, we can see how to begin to shape things.  Yes, in a sense we’re reacting, but we’re also tending to project.  We’re looking at the demographics of the student population over there in the next few decades, and the kinds of aims we think of as our purposes in teaching music at the college level
both for music majors and for general students — and what we would like those people to have learned or experienced as a result of having gone through our classes.  Those ideas and aims have to be changed over the years if we compare the curricula in the 1980s to those of the 1930s and 1920s.  They’re very different.  So this is what I’m involved with.  There’s a separate study group, which will be engaged at looking at the training of future college teachers, and what sort of changes, again, need to be made in their outlook and their curricula.  It should be exciting.  It should be fun.

BD:    Will there be papers issued from all this?

ES:    There should be a whole body of printed material, the timetable for which I couldn’t mention.  I have no idea when they’ll be out.

BD:    Is this an annual meeting?

ES:    No, these two study groups have just been set up within the past year or so, and we would hope that the bulk of our activities would take no more than another few years.  Again I’m just spouting off a date at random without any knowledge, but let’s say by the end of the decade, by 1990 or so, there should be some written report summarizing what we’ve done.

BD:    Each year the major conference moves to another location?

ES:    Oh, yes, it keeps moving.  Last year it was in Toronto, the year before that was Tempe, Arizona, and the year before that we were at Ohio State in Columbus

BD:    So it’ll be years before it comes back to Chicago?

ES:    We’re at Northwestern now and we’re going to be at Lawrence Kansas a year from now. 

BD:    I assume you look forward to it each time.

ES:    Yes!  It should be great.

BD:    Thank you for allowing me to spend time with you.

ES:    Oh, no, the whole thing was useful, and I hope you can make something out of it.


Two of the recordings issued by ASUC - front cover of one and back cover of another.
See my Interviews with Joan Tower, Robert Stern, Leslie Bassett, and Lawrence Moss.

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 5, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week, and again in 1991 and 1996.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

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

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