Composer  Judith  Shatin

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Self-described as "a composer, sound artist, community arts partner and educator," Judith Shatin (born November 21, 1949) holds a master’s degree from The Juilliard School and a doctorate from Princeton University. Since 1979 she has been a professor at the University of Virginia, where she heads the Center for Computer Music.

Shatin has composed for a wide range of genres, from solo instrumental to choral, band to chamber opera, film to electroacoustic and installation works. Her work has received much critical acclaim. Secret Ground, her chamber work inspired by Martin Buber's I and Thou for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, was lauded by The Washington Post as "highly inventive music on every level; hugely enjoyable and deeply involving with a constant sense of surprise." Fanfare called her a composer "possessed of a strong and original voice."

A recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the the Arts, the American Music Center, Meet the Composer, and the New Jersey State Arts Council, Shatin has also received commissions from—to name a few—the Library of Congress, the Kronos Quartet, Ensemble Barcelona Nova Musica, and the newEar Ensemble. She has also served on the boards of the American Composers Alliance and the International Alliance for Women in Music.

--  Biography from the Milken Archive  

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Artist Biography by

A well-respected composer working in many musical genres, Judith Shatin Allen is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Douglass College, as well as a recipient of the M.M. from Juilliard School and a Ph.D. from Princeton. Among her awards are two NEA Composer Fellowships, a Chamber Opera Commission from the Ash Lawn Summer Festival, a New Jersey State Arts Council Grant, and awards from "Meet the Composer" and the American Music Center.

Her works have been performed by the Houston Symphony, the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Contemporary Music Forum, the E.A.R. Ensemble, and the Sylvan and Clarion Wind Quintets. Her Icarus, for violin and piano, was performed at the National Gallery's American Music Festival in Washington, D.C., and her Glyph, for viola, string quartet, and piano, was premiered at the Thirteenth International Viola Congress in Boston.

Her Aura, for orchestra, was composed under an NEA Composer Fellowship in 1981, premiered in 1982 by the Charlottesville University and Community Orchestra. It was subsequently performed and recorded by the Richmond Symphony under the Direction of Jacques Houtmann in 1985. This recording is available on vinyl from Opus One Records.



Aura is a large-scale work of just under twenty minutes' duration. The basic musical material derives from a tone-row chosen for its whole-tone characteristics. According to the composer, "The surface of the piece focuses on small subgroups from the underlying row, with a resultant tonal quality; Aura also refers to traditional form in its dramatic use of transposed recurrent themes which reach a state of resolution at its close."

The work has a distinct post-romantic quality while maintaining a tonally-flexible freedom; the composer effectively manipulates orchestral timbres to create a mystical aura consisting of clouds of sound materials. As the composer explained, "Just as every verbal utterance has its own tone of voice, its affective extension, so does every sound. It is this ineffable extra that Aura celebrates."

--  Biography from  

Shatin was in Chicago in May of 2005, and we arranged to meet for an interview.  As we got into the ideas and uses of the computer, remember when this conversation took place, so some of the terms and products are truly antiquated nearly fifteen years later, as we mark her seventieth birthday.

Bruce Duffie:   What brings you to Chicago?

Judith Shatin:   Actually, a combination of business and pleasure.  My husband is giving a keynote address at a conference tomorrow, and I am meeting with some musician friends, including Bruce Tammen, who will be premiering a choral piece of mine next Fall.

Bruce Tammen (born June 14, 1950) is a conductor and artistic director. He holds degrees from Luther College, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago, and has taught voice and directed choirs at Luther College, the University of Chicago, and the University of Virginia. He studied extensively in France with Dalton Baldwin and Gerard Souzay, and for several years studied with Max van Egmond at Oberlin's Baroque Performance Institute. He has performed several seasons under Helmuth Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival, and with the Robert Shaw Choral Institute, in Souillac, France.


Tammen is baritone soloist on the Telarc/Shaw compact discs Appear and Inspire and Liebeslieder Waltzes. The Chicago Chorale, conducted by Tammen, received the top performance of the year by the Chicago Classical Review with a performance of Rodion Shchedrin's The Sealed Angel.

Tammen is married to Esther Menn. They have three sons; Joseph, Elijah, and Daniel Tammen, as well as a daughter Kaia Tammen.

BD:   Is it important for you, no matter where you are, to arrange to do music even if it’s a pleasure trip?

JS:   I love doing music wherever I am, but I don’t differentiate between pleasure and music.  I just find it enjoyable to meet with colleagues in different places, to hear what music is around, and see what art is around.  To me, it’s all the same.

shatin BD:   You’re both composer and teacher.  How do you balance those two very taxing activities?

JS:   It’s not always easy to figure out how to balance them, but at this point, with the teaching that I doincluding computer music, composition, and various seminarsI’m always in the process of exploring other people’s music, and helping students think about how they are composing.  All of this leads me to think in certain ways about how I’m composing, so I do think of them as being symbiotic.  But it’s not always easy to keep them in balance in terms of the time available for composing, so that’s what really takes an effort.

BD:   Do the students give you good ideas, or do they just lead you to other ideas?

JS:   I’m not sure how to answer that.  I’m particularly enjoying the Ph.D. students that we have at the University of Virginia.  We just established our Ph.D. in composition and computing and technology several years ago, and it’s been really very interesting to see what kinds of students are currently able to combine these different areas, and how inventive some of them have been.  They use new kinds of arts, such as net-based pieces, and they’re using visual programs like Photoshop to help create new kinds of scores for electro-acoustic music.

BD:   So, it’s not art to accompany the music, it’s art to make the scores?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Morton Subotnick.]

JS:   Some of them are actually engaged in multi-media.  We’re seeing a real trend among composers, although it’s not one that I am likely to share.  I’ve enjoyed working with artists who are videographers, but I don’t plan myself to move into creating visual components for my music.  I still find that doing the music-compositional part is plenty.

BD:   Are they composing on the computer, or are they just using the computer as an aid in the composition that then goes on paper?

JS:   Many of the students that I work with are using computers to compose when they’re creating electronic music, and that is what I do myself.  For instance, right now I’m creating a new piece called For the Birds for the cellist Madeleine Shapiro [recording shown at left], using bird songs from the Yellowstone area.  I’m using the computer to transform those sounds.  Some of them will be recognizable and some not, and it’s a slight homage to Cage’s book of the same name.  I also become excited about the use of the sounds of the animals in different kinds of pieces.

BD:   Is there anything at the back of your mind that this piece will take its place with Messiaen, and all of the other works for and about birds?

JS:   Actually, this is a sequel to a much larger piece that I did called Singing the Blue Ridge, which is scored for mezzo, baritone, orchestra, and quite a variety of indigenous wild animal sounds.  For that work, I had the help of the wonderful Macaulay Natural Sound Library at Cornell University.  I just became so captivated by the sounds, and by how one might think about integrating them.  I guess it would be closer to Rautavaara’s Cantus Articus, which has the sounds of Northern birds and orchestra.  I very much admire Messiaen’s interpretation of bird calls where he did his best to notate them.  What I’m intrigued by is the idea of actually bringing the sounds of the animal calls into direct interaction to the sounds that we, as people, make.

BD:   We’re talking at the moment about other people’s works.  When you’re writing your own music, are you writing it in and of itself, or do you harken back, or think about anything else that has come before, or will come after?

JS:   That’s always a complicated question.  One is never composing in a vacuum.  While I am actually working on a piece, I am trying to focus exclusively on it.  However, for instance, in a recent piece that I did called Clave, which was inspired by a study I did of Afro-Caribbean drumming, I was very much thinking about the colors and the rhythmic swing of that kind of music, even though in my own piece I slice and dice and transform these patterns in ways that would not be found in traditional Afro-Caribbean music.

BD:   So, it becomes an inspiration, not any kind of pattern?

JS:   Right.  In the piece that I did, there are places where you hear the basic rhythmic-song pattern, and it’s transformed dramatically.  So, you would recognize that pattern in the course of the piece, but it is transformed and used in ways that would not occur to someone who is steeped in that tradition.

BD:   When you get an idea for a piece, do you try to get a commission for it, or do you have to write it yourself no matter what?

JS:   It’s always lovely to get commissioned, particularly because it’s so delightful to compose for specific people and groups.  I love that collaborative process, but I am not the sort of composer who is only going to do things if they are commissioned.  If I have idea for something that I really want to do, I’m going to go ahead and do it, and worry about finding the performance later.  It’s been a combination of those two things.

BD:   Have most of your pieces been performed?

JS:   Yes.

BD:   Good.  Have you been pleased with those performances?

JS:   In a general way I have.  I’ve had some occasions when a piece is being premiered that no one knows whether the job was good, or the performance was good, bad or indifferent.  Very often I’m quite pleased with performances, but I’ve had a surprising occurrence recently.  I did a piano quartet called Run, which plays with how we group fast moving patterns.  Most of them are just in sixteenth notes.  There aren’t fancy polyrhythms going on, however, the groupings change, say, from four to five to six sixteenth notes, and they’re different patterns, and there are different parts.  A couple of times this piece has been performed by extremely accomplished professional musicians, and they’ve gotten off right near the beginning, and they did not stop because, as professional musicians, you don’t stop.  In that case, I was sitting there wishing they would stop.  They’re right near the beginning and it won’t matter, and it would be better to do the thing over again and get it right.  But they did not, so that kind of thing is a bit difficult.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You didn’t want to stand up and say,
Try it again!”?

shatin JS:   I did, but I didn’t want to embarrass them.  When one is a composer and not performing oneself, one basically is putting one’s work in the hands of the performers.  So, I feel I have to trust them at that point.

BD:   What about the previous step, when you’re in rehearsal and you’re working with the performers.  Are you tinkering with a lot of things, and are you giving them lots of suggestions, or are you basically letting them find their own way?

JS:   I do give suggestions in the rehearsal process.  I always learn from that experience because there’s that transformation of going from what it sounds like in the infinite cavern of your mind, to what is sounds like in the real ear of the room.

BD:   Do you always get it right in your mind?

JS:   No, I don’t always get it right, but I usually get it quite close.  The thing that I tinker with the most is tempo and pacing.  Typically, I can imagine it going faster, and then when I hear it in reality, there’s an adjustment to make.

BD:   Are there ever times when the performers will discover something your score that you didn’t even know you’d hidden there?

JS:   There are frequently times that performers either discover connections, or make suggestions that I find very pleasing and use.  Or they may even make a mistake that I find pleasing and will use.  [Both laugh]  I don’t think of a piece as being written in stone when I have completed it.  After a premiere performance, I like to be able to tinker with details.  I typically don’t make major changes after it’s done, but I think of it as being a fluid process.

BD:   So, it’s just interpretation marks, or things like that?

JS:   Well, it can be more than interpretation marks.  There have been times when I have decided that a certain section needed to be extended, or where I may want a timbre change that I hadn’t imagined to begin with.

BD:   Do you build it in, or do you allow for creativity on the part of the performer?

JS:   I do allow for creativity on the part of the performer.  I really strongly believe in the process as a collaborative one.  I actually recently had a very interesting experience with the first piece I had composed in a long time that involved guarded improvisation.  I was commissioned by the Barcelona New Music Ensemble
which consists of several wonderful improvisersto do a piece for a program called ‘Painting Music’.  Each piece was inspired by a painter, and had a video component, and I worked with a wonderful videographer named Catherine Aioki.  I had suggested the Black Paintings of Goya, which I find very powerful, and I did the electronic music.  We worked back and forth with the music and the visuals.  I also created a chamber score of guided improvisations for the Barcelona New Music Ensemble.  After that time, a number of people heard the piece, and asked me for different versions of it.  So, I’ve created quite a few different versions for solo performers, duos, and so forth.  It was just performed at the Knitting Factory by the Da Capo Chamber Players, and I have been struck by how excited performers are about really getting to participate in that way.  I’m not sure what it means for the future, in the sense that I enjoy creating more fixed-forms as well, but it was really fascinating to see what people bring if you leave them the room to do so.

BD:   You’ve made these other arrangements for different ensembles.  A hundred years from now, if someone else with yet different ensemble decides they want to do it, should they be allowed to do that, or should it be that once you have left this Earth, those versions that are done are done, and nothing else can happen?

JS:   I’ve actually been thinking about whether there is a way in which I can move back one step further in abstraction, so that it could simply be performed by whatever person, or groups, would like to do it.  I’m considering that, but I haven’t gotten there yet.  What I’ve given them now is slightly specific to the instruments in terms of the motives and gestures that would work on those different instruments.  But I’m thinking about going one step beyond that.

BD:   [Trying to be helpful]  It wouldn’t be enough to say, 
Here are my examples, so now make your own.?

JS:   That would be one way to do it.  [Both laugh]  That would save time.

BD:   Since I’m asking about the future, do you expect your music to last?

JS:   That’s a question I don’t concern myself with.  I am delighted that there are people now who have enjoyed playing it, but it’s really not a question I’m concerned about.

BD:   People enjoy playing it.  Do people enjoy hearing it?


JS:   [Thinks a moment]  Yes I think that they do, and I’ve had several experiences that suggest that they do.  I’m sure many of my composer-colleagues would share this experience, and this happened with my orchestra piece Stringing the Bow [recording shown above], which was created by the Virginia Chamber Orchestra.  It’s the first time they had ever commissioned a piece, and everyone was very nervous about it.  Afterwards, a number of people came up to me and said that they hate contemporary music, but really liked my piece!  [Both laugh]  One would hope that they can then revise their notion of what contemporary music is after hearing some pieces that don’t meet their criteria
whatever that is.  Many people have some notion that contemporary music is music that they don’t like, instead of taking the advantage of hearing some of the incredible range there is.

BD:   Should the words YOU WILL LIKE THIS MUSIC be put in big bold type on the placards that are outside the concert hall?

JS:   [With a hearty laugh]  Who knows?

BD:   [Being serious]  Do you want the audience to like it, or do you want them to be inspired by it, or understand it, or think about it, or all of the above?

shatin JS:   All of the above.  Whether one likes it depends on the piece.  As a good example from the art world, if you go and look at a work by Egon Schiele, it’s very powerful and strong.  Does that mean you like it?  [Egon Schiele (12 June 1890 – 31 October 1918) was an Austrian painter. A protégé of Gustav Klimt, Schiele was a major figurative painter of the early 20th century. His work is noted for its intensity and its raw sexuality, and the many self-portraits the artist produced, including naked self-portraits. The twisted body shapes and the expressive line that characterize Schiele's paintings and drawings mark the artist as an early exponent of Expressionism.]  I certainly am not interested in just creating, or having to respond to music that is in some measurable way ‘pretty’.  I would like for it to be powerful, and to have many different kinds of qualities.

BD:   Is there a balance, and if so, where is it between art and entertainment?

JS:   [She laughs, then thinks again]  By
entertainment’, people talk about experiences that one doesn’t necessarily think about, but it’s really hard to make these distinctions.  For instance, I went to a major tap-dance program at City Center, New York, some years back, and I’m sure there were many people there because they thought this is incredibly entertaining.  It was entertaining, but it also started me thinking about these really fascinating sonic patterns that were created by the tap-dancers, and all the intricacies and artistry that went into it.  So I’m not sure how to draw that line.

BD:   Did it inspire you to write a tap-dance piece like Morton Gould’s Tap Dance Concerto (1952)?

JS:   No, but I’m hoping to work this summer on an interactive tap-dance piece, where I would measure the taps and use those to control musical parameters.

BD:   We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

JS:   There are, of course, many, many purposes of music, but for me, the purpose is to go beyond the self, to be immersed in something completely different, and enabling one to have a transcendental experience.  It’s to have a combination of sensual experience, and experience that engages one in thinking deeply.  It can also be just a joyous experience.  Experiencing music really engages the whole realm of emotion, so it’s rare in that there’s profound emotion, and it’s something that one can think about in systematic ways as well.

BD:   Are these thoughts that should go through the performers’ minds as well, and the audiences’ minds, or should they just come and experience it on whatever level they can?

JS:   Again, there’s an interesting analogy to make with the arts.  For instance, if you look at a painting and you don’t know the symbolism, you’re still going to come away with the potentially profound experience of very powerful art.  But if you do know the symbolism, you’ll come away with more.  For people who wonder if there is any reason to know music theory, and understand more about what’s going on in music from whatever period, one can surely have profound experiences.  But the more you know, the deeper those experiences will be.  If you know Japanese, you’re going to get much more out of going to Kabuki Theater than if you don’t.  Having had the pleasure of experiencing Kabuki Theater, I still found myself enjoying it very much, and wishing that I not only knew Japanese, but also what all of the different gestures meant, because it’s highly choreographed.

BD:   Is the music that you write for everyone?

JS:   I want to say yes.

BD:   Six billion of us now?

JS:   [Laughs]  Do I expect six billion people are going to hear it and experience it, and like it?  No!  But do I expect that one needs to have very special training to encounter it?  The answer is no.

BD:   Would it be anathema to you to have six billion people experience your music?

JS:   No...  It’s just hard to imagine six billion people experiencing any one individual.

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BD:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.


See my interviews with Simon Sargon, Robert Beaser, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Stephen Paulus

JS:   One of the sorrows is that I usually cannot restrain myself from internally singing it, and always get a sore throat when I’m writing for the human voice!  [Both laugh]  The joy is that it has so many subtleties and colors, and I find it fascinating to try and find a way of embodying something about the meaning of words in the melodic shaping of vocal lines.

BD:   Do you find that the text restricts you, or enables you to go in greater paths than just the abstract music?

JS:   It certainly does not restrict me.  I very much am inspired in general by extra-musical ideas of a very wide variety.  It simply helps me to think about shape in relation to word and the text.

BD:   Are the texts you’ve set things that you have found specifically and want to set, or have they been suggested to you?

shatin JS:   Typically, I have found them.  For instance, I did a piece for the San Francisco Girls Chorus, for treble chorus and electronics, and I found special poems by Gertrude Stein, Ogden Nash, Walter de la Mare, and Mary Ann Hoberman.  I spent months looking at poems in order to find those.

BD:   Were you looking for things that would work, or were you just going through and deciding if this will work or not?

JS:   I was looking for things that would work.  But, for instance, I also had the experience of doing a piece called Three Summers Heat for soprano and electronics [recording shown at right], which was commissioned for a concert where each composer was given a season, and mine was Summer.  I was at the University of Virginia library, in a section of Chinese poetry, and was just looking around, and I saw this beautiful lavender-marbled-colored cloth-bound book.  I pulled it out, and there it was.  So it just depends.  A lot of time it can be really fortuitous.  I set some poetry of Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), and I was originally going to use the Stanley Kunitz translations, which are quite wonderful, but I had a colleague at the University of Virginia who was able to show me that the texts in Russian were really so different, and that I should try to do it in Russian.  Since I had her help, I was able to do that.  [Stanley Jasspon Kunitz (July 29, 1905 – May 14, 2006) was an American poet. He was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress twice, first in 1974 and then again in 2000. Kunitz served as editor of the Wilson Library Bulletin from 1928 to 1943. An outspoken critic of censorship, in his capacity as editor, he targeted his criticism at librarians who did not actively oppose it. He published an article in 1938 by Bernard Berelson entitled "The Myth of Library Impartiality". This article led Forrest Spaulding and the Des Moines Public Library to draft the Library Bill of Rights, which was later adopted by the American Library Association and continues to serve as the cornerstone document on intellectual freedom in libraries.]

BD:   Did you quick-learn enough Russian to be able to deal with it?

JS:   No.  What I did was record her reading the poetry.  She was generous in reciting it slowly so that I could make rhythmic notations, because, unlike the case of Stravinsky
s setting André Gide’s poem Perséfone, I really wanted to be able to accentuate the rhythm of the original language.  That was my goal.

BD:   When you have live performers
either vocalists or instrumentalistsalong with electronics, this produces the idea that some things can be interpreted, but the electronics are always going to be exactly the same.  We’re now getting to where you can manipulate the electronics, but does this create any kind of conflict, or is this a liberating idea?

JS:   That’s a fair question and, of course, there are many more opportunities to do interactive pieces where you can really control what the interaction is.  Although the piece that I did for the San Francisco Girls Chorus works, and they did a beautiful job with it, the electronics went through each of the four songs.  Then, for the Kronos Quartet I did a piece called Elijah’s Chariot, and for that one I used eight different cues, so it was possible to change the pacing and then just have the cues come in at the point where I wanted them.  I did the same thing for a piece being performed again next month called Singing the Blue Ridge, which is scored for mezzo, baritone, orchestra and indigenous wild animals sounds.  In that one, I have quite a number of cues in each movement, so again there’s a certain amount of flexibility that I have written in precisely because of the issue of pacing of the live performers, and not wanting them to feel trapped into the exact same pacing.  On the other hand, I have found that some performers like playing off recorded sound, and getting to know where it is, and being able to count on it being there.

BD:   Orchestras will carry someone who specifically plays E-Flat clarinet, or bass trombone.  Should they also carry someone who is an electronic engineer?

JS:   It would be really fascinating.  So far, I think few orchestras are doing enough music with electronics for that to make sense.  But, for instance, in the young Next Ensemble out of Cincinnati College Conservatory, one of the members handles the electronics for them, and they’re doing quite a bit with chamber music and electronics.  So this really is an issue, and as people continue to explore and develop new technologies, it will become more of one.  As far as my piece Singing the Blue Ridge, all is you need is somebody who can hit the play button on the CD, and who can set up a play-back system.  I really tried to keep it simple, especially when we’re working with orchestra, because otherwise it could be very complicated, and since every minute is so costly, you don’t want to have to have many hours of figuring out why something isn’t working.

BD:   Assign it to one of the percussionists, so instead of hitting the tam-tam, they would hit the Play button.

JS:   They could do that!

BD:   One more question on electronics.  It seems like there was a great deal of electronic music, and then it went away for a little bit, and now seems to be having a resurgence.  Is this a good thing to have electronic music coming back into our consciousness?

JS:   [Slightly perturbed]  I’m not sure what makes you say that it had ever died out.  Over the past twenty years it’s been hugely present throughout the pop music ensembles.

BD:   Yes, but I’m just talking about concert music, such as was created by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky.

JS:   In concert music, it’s easier than ever to incorporate it.  The equipment since the time I started has become so much more available and cheaper.  On the other hand, one of the issues that I’ve been doing long enough to face is the problem of what happens if you use equipment that is quite quickly obsolete.  What we’re seeing now is the migration from peripheral units, to doing things like reverb etc., and software of various kinds.

BD:   [Wistfully]  I would hate to have to try and perform a piece for orchestra and eight-track tape...

JS:   [Smiles]  This is true, but eight-track tape can, and probably for many pieces, is being transferred into eight tracks of audio for the computer to play.  That’s actually pretty simple to do.

BD:   Right, but you can no longer stick a cartridge in and hope that it plays properly.

JS:   Right, that’s true.  You probably wouldn’t be able to find the eight-track player to do it.

BD:   We have to have someone who has and maintains every incarnation of every piece of equipment that has been produced.

JS:   But that is simply impossible.  When I first got into this, I did a piece called Hearing Things for amplified violin, a mini-keyboard, a computer running an obscure program that’s really not used much, and a voice processor, etc., etc., etc.  I would never do that now.  I learned my lesson on that one!

BD:   Is it good that we are trying to keep up with the latest, or should we just simply have an old-fashioned computer, like a Stradivarius violin?  [With a gentle nudge]  Should we have electronic concerts on original instruments?

JS:   I’m sure that there are plenty of analogue enthusiasts out there who would say that we should have electronic concerts on ‘period instruments’ like the Arp and the Moog.  To me, the excitement of continuing to use current technologies is that now when I process a sound fall, I can hear the results immediately.  I don’t have to wait twenty-four hours, or I don’t have to go to the engineering school in the middle of the night to use their analogue-digital converter.  They really are useful tools, but it’s important to distinguish which ones you really need, and not just spend your whole time trying to master new technologies that may not give you anything in particular more that you need.  You’ve got to be able to make those distinctions.

ARP Instruments, Inc. was an American manufacturer of electronic musical instruments (an example is shown below), founded by Alan Robert Pearlman in 1969. It created a popular and commercially successful range of synthesizers throughout the 1970s before declaring bankruptcy in 1981. The company earned a reputation for producing excellent sounding, innovative instruments and was granted several patents for the technology it developed.




Moog synthesizer (shown at right) may refer to any number of analog synthesizers designed by Robert Moog or manufactured by Moog Music (an example is shown at right), and is commonly used as a generic term for older-generation analog music synthesizers. The Moog company pioneered the commercial manufacture of modular voltage-controlled analog synthesizer systems in the mid-1960s. The technological development that led to the creation of the Moog synthesizer was the invention of the transistor, which enabled researchers like Moog to build electronic music systems that were considerably smaller, cheaper and far more reliable than earlier vacuum tube-based systems.

The Moog synthesizer gained wider attention in the music industry after it was demonstrated at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. The commercial breakthrough of a Moog recording was made by Wendy Carlos in the 1968 record Switched-On Bach, which became one of the highest-selling classical music recordings of its era. The success of Switched-On Bach sparked a slew of other synthesizer records in the late 1960s to mid-1970s.

Later Moog modular systems featured various improvements, such as a scaled-down, simplified, self-contained musical instrument designed for use in live performance.

BD:   Is it a good thing that we’re putting such complicated and merited possibilities in the hands of rank amateurs now?  It seems that almost anyone can do a composition at home, and then burn the CD.

JS:   I have been the recipient of many CDs created by such folks, and it’s very rare to find one with music that one would care to listen to.  On the other hand, it’s fantastic that in the pop music world, there are some very creative people who are able to use their creativity to work directly with sound, and not have to go through the route of making and copying the score.  So that one cuts both ways.

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BD:   What advice in general do you have for your students, or other younger composers?

JS:   [Thinks a moment]  One of the things that I spend a lot of time with younger composers is broadening their knowledge of music, both being created now and from the past.  One of the things that I find troubling is that as we’re now into the Twenty-First Century, there’s so little of the Twentieth Century music that people are aware of.  There’s always this continued accumulation, but the tendency is to back off and get people to experience and think about music from the early and mid-parts of the Twentieth Century.  One can’t assume, for instance, a deep familiarity with composers like Bartók, or even Stravinsky.

BD:   To say nothing of Roger Sessions or Walter Piston.

JS:   Exactly, exactly.

BD:   Either in your music or in any music, what are some of the strains that contribute to its greatness?


JS:   Greatness in music is a really difficult category.  It encompasses music that intrigues after multiple hearings.  It’s a match between inventiveness of structure and its perceptibility.  Since I happen to be married to a cognitive psychologist who studies visual auditory perception, I come upon this not by chance.  But I really do think that what the Gestalt psychologists had to say, and learning more now about how we perceive groups and patterns, has a lot to tell us about how we take in sound.  To me, it’s very important to create structures that are perceptible, not necessarily in a simplistic way, but it affects how willing I am to pack my music in terms of density.  I find that I typically do not like to pack it with information such that I find myself unable to perceive what’s going on, especially when information theory as a way of thinking about music theory was a focus.  There have been composers who like to pack their music very, very densely, and that’s something I’m not drawn to do.

shatin BD:   Do you then spread the piece out, or use the material in two pieces?

JS:   I wouldn’t even know if it’s a question so much of spreading the piece out, as it is conceptually how you think about grouping and shaping musical materials.

BD:   When you get an idea for a piece, does it hit you all at once, or do you have to work out of all the details in order to see how it’s going to end?

JS:   I typically have a notion of scale, the size of a piece, and I definitely do a lot of working out before I start writing and composing.  But I always like to leave room for surprises, too.  Sometimes I’ll get into a piece, and something will occur to me that only the compositional process will give rise to.  Then I like to incorporate surprises when they seem like good ones.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Libby Larsen, Joan Tower, and Nancy Van de Vate.]

BD:   Do you still control those, or do they control your hand as it goes across the page?

JS:   It’s a dynamic process, so what I’m creating can help propel ideas that lead to additional compositional worries of one sort and another.

BD:   When you’re working on a piece, and tinkering with it, and fixing things and getting it all ready, how do you know when you’re done?  How do you know when it’s ready to let go?

JS:   That’s an extremely good question!  What I frequently do is just go over it, over it, over it, and I’m done when I feel as though all the nuances and details are where they need to be.  At that point I feel like there’s nothing else to do, other than to go into the rehearsal process and see how it all shakes out.

     [At this point we stopped for a moment to check a few technical details... including her birth date.]

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

JS:   I’m very happy in many ways with where I am.  I have a fantastic job working with great students, and my music is performed by some quite wonderful people.  What I wish for myself
and for my colleagues, as wellis to improve the climate of performance.  At times I get really tired of being in a culture that seems to put so little value in music, in particular that which is created in our time.  The fact that orchestras don’t necessarily perform a new work on every programand by new I’m willing to be pretty flexible, and say something from the last fifty yearsI find really troubling.  It’s, of course, much better in certain media than others.  Choruses, and bands, and certain chamber ensembles are much more likely to include a new work, but I wish this were really more expanded, especially in the orchestral world.

BD:   Would you rather be on an all new-music program, or on a mixed program?

JS:   If I had my
druthers, I’d rather be on a mixed program, and if it’s an all new-music program, it needs to be shorter, and have a strong stylistic mix.  In that sense, one is creating different kinds of textures the way one would in a mixed program.  In other words, make a new-music program into a mixed program, which is surely possible to do.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

JS:   I’m optimistic about the future of music, because music means so much to people that I can’t imagine they will not continue to find exciting things to do with it.

BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

JS:   Composing it delightful.  It’s one of the very few activities, at least for myself, where time simply vanishes.  I can be composing, and five hours can just go by in a snap.  I think it’s great fun.

BD:   I hope for lots more from your pen, and your electronic media.


JS:   One of the things that intrigues me so much about electronic media is the possibility of using the sounds of the world in ways you simply couldn’t before.  I did a piece called Penelope’s Song, which is scored for viola and electronics, where I recorded the sounds of a weaver, weaving on wooden looms.  It’s something that just couldn’t not occur to one.  Of course, there are all kinds of spinning songs where we have representations of that sound, but I found that the sound itself was really fantastic, and to be able to play with that, and transform those sounds so that sometimes it sounds very much like the sound of a loom in the room, and sometimes you would never know what the sonic origin was.  That seems really compelling to me, as does the process of physical-modeling, where you take the sounds of an instrument and find ways to represent it.  By physical modeling, you are creating equations on the software that can imitate that sound, but can also transform it in ways the instrument couldn’t.  I’m not at all interested in the idea of creating ersatz instrumental sounds, nor do I think that electronic music is going to mean the death-knell of live performers, or recordings of performers.  The performer of sophistication in live performance, and the joy that people take in it, is not going to go away.

BD:   So it’s just another instrument... a massive instrument, but another one?

JS:   It’s another instrument.  Yes,
massive is the word.  But it enables us to do things that traditional acoustic instruments don’t enable us to do.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.

JS:   Thank you for talking to me about being one.  It is really just a wonderful thing to get to do.


See my interview with Marilyn Shrude


See my interview with Meyer Kupferman


© 2005 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 26, 2005.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR two months later, and again in 2013 and 2019; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2006, and 2010.  This transcription was made in 2019, 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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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

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