Composer / Pianist Marilyn Shrude
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Chicago-born composer Marilyn Shrude (July
6, 1946 - ) received degrees from Alverno College and Northwestern
University, where she studied with Alan Stout and M. William Karlins.
Among her more prestigious honors are those from the American Academy
of Arts and Letters, Rockefeller Foundation, Chamber Music America/ASCAP,
Meet the Composer, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ohio Arts Council.
She was the first woman to receive the Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards
for Orchestral Music (1984), and the Cleveland Arts Prize for Music (1998).
Since 1977, Shrude has been on the faculty of Bowling Green State University,
where she teaches and currently chairs the Department of Musicology/Composition/Theory.
She is the founder of the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music
(at Bowling Green), an international organization for the promotion of
contemporary music, and past director of its Annual New Music & Art
She continues to be active as a pianist and clinician with saxophonist
John Sampen. In 2001, she was named a Distinguished Artist Professor
Marilyn Shrude was back in Chicago in March of 2001 for a performance
of a brand new work with the Cube Ensemble. [Program shown below-right.
Also see my interviews with Marta Ptaszynska.]
She was most gracious to agree to meet with me after the program,
and we discussed many things of mutual interest.
Here is that conversation . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You’re both a composer and a teacher.
How are you able to divide your career, or is there just not enough
time in any day?
Marilyn Shrude: [Laughs] I do what I have
to do! Deadlines are good things, and very often the deadline
dictates what gets done. I’ve been juggling a lot of responsibilities
for a long time.
BD: You do what has to be done. Is the
composing of music what you have to do?
Shrude: Yes, there’s a compelling urge, if
you want to call it that. Plus, if somebody asks you to write a
piece, and you agree to do it, you have a premiere, and you do it.
That’s part of the game.
BD: If a lot of people are asking you to write
pieces for them, how do you decide to accept or not?
Shrude: I do decide, and I purposely don’t
overload my schedule. In retrospect now, I write two pieces a year,
and I still think that’s pretty good actually for somebody who’s also
a full-time teacher, mother, whatever.
BD: Is this all chamber pieces, or big orchestral
Shrude: Anything, from big to little.
BD: I would think a larger piece would take
a lot more time and energy than a smaller piece.
Shrude: I have a leave of absence next year,
so I am writing an orchestra piece. You have to plan for those things.
BD: When you sit down, and you’ve got a little
bit of time today to work on the piece, do the ideas always come?
Shrude: [Thinks a moment] No!
But I’m experienced enough to know that sometimes you work on technical
things. You just generate material, and you’re not really sure
where it’s going to end up. But there’s something about keeping
the pencil moving, and if you’re not doing anything, that’s worse.
BD: You say you keep the pencil moving.
Are you controlling the pencil, or is that pencil controlling your
hand across the page?
Shrude: At first I’m controlling the pencil.
Ultimately, I’m controlling it all, but there’s an interesting point
in writing a piece, when you’re so into it that things begin to happen
quickly. Then, as you just said, it begins controlling you, and
it flows very fast.
BD: Is it a surprise where it takes you?
Shrude: Sometimes. I’m a planner, though.
I believe in getting a good idea of the piece before I start.
I don’t just work totally organically, so I do a lot of verbal sketching,
planning, maybe working out a narrative, drawing pictures to make the shape
of the piece. I also work on a timeline, so I have a good idea of
where I’m going.
BD: Should the public or students of your
music ever look at these pictures, or are they purely for your own creative
Shrude: I’ve shared them, and when I’ve
given many talks about my music, it’s interesting for people to see how
composers work. So, I’ve often shared those graphs and notes, and
people do find it interesting. They have a funny idea of what they
think composers do, and when you show them that you plan and plot things
out, that’s a surprise to them. It’s amazing,
but it is.
BD: Does it ever become Augenmusik
[music for the eye]?
Shrude: No! But I guess they’re intrigued
with the process. For them, composing is such a mystery, and it
has its mysterious elements, but it’s just plain hard work.
BD: Is composing at all a mystery to
Shrude: Yes, it still is.
BD: Is that a good thing?
Shrude: [Laughs] Yes!
BD: Would you have to stop being a composer
if all the mystery was gone?
Shrude: I don’t know. It could be a
job, too. Sometimes it feels like a burden because it is such
BD: Is the burden just the working out, or
is the burden actually coming up with the ideas?
Shrude: Whenever I start a piece, it’s like
starting from the beginning again, and that doesn’t seem to get any
easier. It’s the blank page syndrome.
BD: You start each new piece, but are you
reinventing the wheel each time?
Shrude: No. It’s like shaping a child,
or giving birth. There’s an omen of starting over each time.
BD: You have a child who is actually turning
into a musician. Is each one of your pieces like a new person that
you have to give birth to, and let grow, and then let go of?
Shrude: Yes, and that’s a good point, because
especially when I’m engaged in the performance of the piece, like a pianist,
I keep recomposing — changing
and tweaking — and there are some
things that I’ll change. The piece that you heard tonight is only
one third done, actually. [It would be finished and premiered the
BD: When you’ve got a piece that is out, and
it’s published, and it’s been done a few times, do you still tinker with
it, or do you have to let it go?
Shrude: If it’s engraved, I let it go.
Until that point, I reserve the right to tinker. [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Steven Stucky, and Elliott Carter.]
BD: Are there ever times that you wish you
could get it back — even after
it’s engraved — and make it a new
Shrude: No! No, I move on.
BD: You were the performer in this piece tonight.
Is it good that the composer also helps bring the piece to life, or should
you let it be brought to life with other performers?
Shrude: I like to perform. I’ve done it
most of my life, and I would miss not doing that, but it’s thrilling
to have other people play, too. It’s like setting the performance-practices
in place. I have a lot of tempo fluctuations in my music, a lot
of dynamics inflections, and a lot of subtle pedaling, and if that’s
ignored by performers, I don’t think the music comes across the way
I conceived it. I like to have a chance to interpret it the way
I conceived it, but then other people come up with ideas, too. There
are good ones often, but at least there is some kind of a model there.
BD: A starting point?
BD: It really is a starting point, and then
the music moves away?
Shrude: Right. I just wrote a piece
which was premiered last month in Israel, for flute, saxophone, and
two pianos, and I haven’t heard it yet.
BD: [Surprised] Not even on tape???
Shrude: No! They are actually coming
to America next month, and I will hear it then. I sent it to them
in December, and they had some questions. They’ve performed it
already a couple of times, and they’re going to perform it about ten more
times. I didn’t have that input, so it is totally dependent on them
BD: Did that scare you even more than you
being part of the premiere?
Shrude: No, it didn’t scare me, but it’s good
to hear the piece before it goes out.
BD: Are there times that performers discover
things in your piece that you didn’t even know you’d hidden there?
Shrude: Yes, that has happened. I can’t
think of a specific instance right now, but I recall that happening.
BD: Do you then make sure that when you perform
it a couple of years later, that you add those ideas to it?
Shrude: Sure, if it’s a good idea.
But I was thinking more of people discovering note-relationships and
thematic-relationships that I really didn’t put there on purpose. That’s
kind of intriguing, and it’s a good thing.
* * *
BD: You’re both a composer and performer.
Are you a better composer because you are a performer?
Shrude: For me, yes. That’s not true
for everybody, because not all composers perform, although it’s a good
thing to do if you can because it’s a good reality check.
BD: Let me turn the question around. Are
you a better performer because you are also a composer?
Shrude: Yes, definitely, because I see nuance
in music that I know composers intend, that performers often ignore.
I also see phrasings and subtleties that make music speak.
BD: Do you teach theory and composition?
Shrude: I don’t teach theory any more.
I did at one time, but now it’s just composition.
BD: Should you, perhaps, also teach performers?
Shrude: I coach a lot, yes, so in that sense
I do teach performers.
BD: Is there some general advice that you
have for performers of old or new music? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my interview with Judith Shatin.]
Shrude: [Thinks a moment] Be sensitive
to what’s on the page. Learn the music well, then play it, and
then perform it. Let it speak from the heart, and don’t be chained
by technical dos and don’ts. Those are just
guiding points of dynamics and phrasing.
BD: So you expect the performer to add a little,
or a lot?
Shrude: Sure. If they want to push the
tempo a little, or push the dynamic, it may be the best thing in that
BD: You’ve been observing this for a few years.
Are performers getting better or worse at bringing more of themselves
into the piece?
Shrude: I hear some brilliant young performers.
It’s just a layer of technique to burn, and they’re just wonderful interpreters,
too. But I also hear people who play with no soul, and that worries
me. I heard a story from William Bolcom*, who
is one of our great American composers. He wrote a contest piece
for the Van Cliburn
Competition, and in conferring with the committee about the piece he was
going to write, the committee told him to write something that put demands
on the interpretative powers of the performers. They said that technically
they can play anything, but do something which pushes the interpretative
BD: I would think it would be interesting
to find out what each interpreter can do with a new piece, rather than
having thousands of performances and a history of recordings to listen to
of Beethoven and Chopin, and everything else that comes up in the contest.
BD: Have any of your pieces been used as contest
Shrude: That may happen, and it’s all I can
say. But it’s not for the Van Cliburn.
BD: Would that make you think about a piece
differently, or is it just another piece?
Shrude: No, it’s a piece that happened to
be chosen, and my good fortune.
BD: That way you know you’ll get a number
of performances out of it.
BD: Is that something composers still look
for — the second the performance,
rather than just the first?
Shrude: That’s important. I don’t think
I’d write something if I didn’t think it was going to get performed at
least a couple of times, because that’s a lot of work, and it’s not finished
until it’s performed. Once is good, but a hundred times is better.
BD: Once it is performed, is it finished,
or is it not finished until it’s performed again, and still not finished
until it’s performed yet again?
Shrude: I guess you can say that. That’s
pretty philosophical for this late at night, but I have some pieces that
are twenty-five years old which are still performed. That speaks
well for the piece — that it
is still in the repertoire of an instrument, and that there are some people
interested. It’s withstood the test of time, and is still valid.
BD: Are there times when someone will ask you for a
piece, and either you are too burdened with other things, or you think
there’s another piece that’s already in your catalogue which would be
just right for this situation?
Shrude: That specifically hasn’t happened,
but I could see that happening. I don’t commit to something unless
I can really do it, and spend the time that I think I need on it.
BD: When you accept a commission, do you know
how long it will take to get all of the right notes on the paper?
Shrude: Yes, I do, and so I’m careful
about saying yes if there’s not enough time.
BD: Do you always meet those deadlines?
Shrude: Yes! I’m pretty good at meeting
them, even if I just squeak in at the last minute. I am sometimes
Fed-Exing those pages off.
BD: Are there ever times when you’re working
on a piece, and you get an idea for another piece, or feel something
that is in this piece would work better in a different piece?
Shrude: Sure, that happens, and I also sometimes
go back to old pieces and pull things out that I might use, because
it never quite worked the way I intended. It may start, but then
I change it along the way, and it doesn’t just end up being verbatim.
I have done that.
BD: When you’re working on a piece, and you’re
getting close to the deadline, how do you know when you’ve finished?
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my
interview with Karel Husa*.]
Shrude: [Laughs] When it’s got to be
in the mail! [Much laughter] That’s when I know it’s finished,
really. Again, it’s these deadlines. I was copying a piece
on Christmas this year, and mailed the day after. It’s just something
you have to do.
BD: If you didn’t have a deadline, would you
impose one on yourself?
Shrude: Yes, I would.
BD: Being a full-time composer with no deadlines
would be terrible for you?
Shrude: I don’t think most full-time composers
are without deadlines. They probably have a lot of deadlines, and
they’ve got to be disciplined to spend the hours every day writing, and
keep on track. Otherwise, they couldn’t make it work for themselves.
BD: Unlimited amounts of time wouldn’t help,
or a few more days wouldn’t help, or a few more weeks wouldn’t help?
BD: If you could be just a full-time composer,
would that be more interesting to you than also teaching, or do you keep
your hand in the real world with teaching?
Shrude: I love to teach. I really like
the inter-action with students, and I would miss it if I didn’t do it...
but there are times when I wish I just had a big block of time to work.
The reality of it is that there are very few people who can have
* * *
mentioned that you’re raising a daughter, as well as teaching and composing...
Shrude: We have a son, too.
BD: So, it’s even a larger family!
BD: Is it more of a burden on the female composer
to work with a family, or do male composers just simply get away with
not having to deal with this?
Shrude: It depends on the family. I have
a great situation. We share the responsibility. My children
don’t need me anymore now because they’re older. When they were
younger, we really shared the responsibilities, but there are some bottom-line
things that the woman has to do. Bearing the children is an issue
for female composers, and most people probably don’t have as co-operative
a spouse as I do.
BD: Are we finally getting away from the idea
that it’s surprising that the composer of a chamber piece or orchestral
piece is a woman?
Shrude: I think so, although there’s still
a struggle. There are still these glass ceilings, and little things
that remind you of your place. Statistically, we are such a small
minority. I don’t know what the numbers are, but when you go to
any conference, for every twenty men there’s one woman composer.
BD: [Trying to be optimistic] At least
there are three female Pulitzer Prize holders. [At the time of
this interview (2001), the female winners were Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (1983),
Shulamit Ran (1991),
and Melinda Wagner
(1999). Subsequently, there would be Jennifer Higdon (2010)
and others. Female runners-up would include Vivian Fine (1983), Joan Tower (1993), Chen Yi (2006), Augusta Read Thomas (2007),
Shrude: Yes, but not enough yet.
BD: Is the music of a woman composer any different
from that of a man composer, or is it just the difference from person
Shrude: It’s more the second option.
Your life informs what you do, and you might have experiences that are
more unique to a woman, but I don’t really see the gender thing in music
the way some people purport.
BD: Is it still harder for a composer rather
than a performer because we’ve had female performers longer?
Shrude: That depends on what you are
talking about. If you’re talking about the Vienna Philharmonic, no.
They still have a problem with women in the orchestra, but for most professional
situations, they don’t care. If the person is a good, they take
a woman or man. [The Vienna Philharmonic did not accept female
musicians to permanent membership until 1997, far later than comparable
orchestras. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra hired its first female
musician, violinist Madeleine Carruzzo, in 1982. However, Karajan’s
hiring in September 1982 of Sabine Meyer, the
first female wind player to the orchestra, led to controversy when the
orchestra voted 73 to 4 not to admit her to the orchestra. Meyer
subsequently left the orchestra.]
BD: What about collegiate and other teaching
Shrude: The balance for collegiate situations
is much better than it was, but women are still under-represented.
BD: Are you part of a lineage of the few women
composers of previous generation, such as Joan Tower, and
the generation before that of Miriam Gideon and Louise Talma? Do
you look to them to get inspiration?
Shrude: Not them specifically, although I
know Joan. My female role models were my teachers at the Catholic
school, and the nuns in Chicago and Milwaukee who were my teachers and
mentors. I would say they were my female role models musician-wise.
BD: Are you an inspiration to your students as
Shrude: You’d better
ask them. [Laughs] I hope so! I have loyal students.
BD: When you’re teaching a student, are there
times that you think another teacher on the faculty would be better for
this situation, and push them that direction?
Shrude: Yes. In fact, we force the students
to change teachers. We rotate them, so they experience more than
one opinion. The four people at my school who teach composition
are totally different from one another, so this is good.
BD: You’ve been at Bowling Green now for twenty-three
years. It’s a good situation?
Shrude: Yes, it’s a healthy environment, and
we have a good enrollment. [Vis-à-vis the recording shown
at right, see my interview with Charles Wuorinen.]
BD: Over this period of time, how has the
teaching of composition changed — if
Shrude: Technology has made the biggest impact.
Otherwise, it’s still one-on-one, like an apprenticeship with private
lessons. But with the advent of technology, my students started
bringing in discs or tapes of their pieces instead of scores. I’m
good at reading scores on the piano, so it was never a problem for me
to synthesize what they had done, and so we could hear it and talk about
it. But they were working on computers and bringing their work in
like that, and that was something I had to get used to.
BD: Was it good that they could immediately
hear their work?
Shrude: Yes, for a lot of them it was, because
a lot of them come at writing differently than people like me. They’re
not as strong as performers, and the computers are a great aid.
BD: Then they’re writing more by ear?
BD: Is that a good thing, or just a thing?
Shrude: It’s a thing, but if they don’t get
the technique, then it is not a good thing, at least for what we’re
doing. For rock bands, it’s fine because it’s all hands-on.
BD: Is it good that we are blurring the line
into jazz and other kinds of culture?
Shrude: I think it is good. We were
too sequestered, and we have to look for new venues and new language.
It’s our language, and our culture.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You mean, you
want to keep it alive???
Shrude: I hope so! I’ve invested a lot
of time in it! It’s going to happen. This is the music that
a lot of the kids are raised on, and it’s bound to come out in their art
BD: From your vantage point, is the concert music
that you work with still viable, or is it dying?
Shrude: I hope it’s viable. It’s changing,
and we have to deal with that, and with the changing concert audience
and venues. Cube does a good job. They diversify a lot, and
they try different modes of presentation. It’s just a must.
We have to break that barrier down.
BD: We’re dancing around it, so let me hit
you with the real easy question. What’s the purpose of music?
Shrude: It’s another form of human expression,
and a valid one. It’s something which touches the emotions very
directly. It’s been a form of communication for a long time, and
it defies language. It’s the only universal language.
BD: Is the music you write for everyone? You
have a potential audience of six billion...
Shrude: Probably not, but that’s okay.
I have a day-job, but I don’t consider this my hobby. It is more
than that, but I would hope it touches some people.
BD: Does it still surprise you that a lot
of people are asking for new and old pieces from your catalogue?
Shrude: No. I’m glad, but people can’t
wait to be asked. That’s another myth
— that people think your phone is ringing, or you get letters
in the mail. You have to be pro-active as a composer. You
have to make the contacts, and you have to make things happen. So
yes, I’m happy when I get offers, but surprised? Not really.
* * *
BD: Have you basically been pleased with the performances
that you’ve heard of your music over the years?
Shrude: Many yes, some, no, but that’s the
way it goes. [Both laugh] Anybody will tell you that.
BD: Can you fix the ones that are problematic,
or are they just gone?
Shrude: No, they’re gone. They’re just
bad — poorly
prepared, or something went wrong.
BD: They had not enough time to get into the
BD: Are there some people who really get
into your music, and into your world more than others?
Shrude: Well, my greatest collaborator has
been my husband, the saxophonist, John Sampen. I’m probably the
most prolific female saxophone composer in the world. I have fifteen
pieces to my credit, and that’s a lot of saxophone pieces. But if
it wasn’t for the collaboration there, I don’t think I would have been
as successful as I am. He understands my music. He’s a good
reference, but he’s also a supremely wonderful performer who has performed
my music a lot.
John Sampen has degrees from Northwestern University (B.M., 1971;
M.M., 1972; and Doctor of Music, 1984). His teachers included Frederick Hemke, Larry Teal,
and Donald Sinta. He has served as professor of saxophone at Bowling Green
State University in Bowling Green, Ohio since 1977.
Sampen plays all styles, but specializes in new music. He has
commissioned over 60 new works from composers such as Samuel Adler, William Albright,
**, John Cage,
**, Ryo Noda, Pauline Oliveros,
**, Elliott Schwartz,
Marilyn Shrude, Morton Subotnick**, and Vladimir Ussachevsky.
[*Pulitzer Prize winner; **Pulitzer runner-up; ***Pulitzer
BD: Have other saxophone players asked
you for music?
BD: Is it different writing for your housemate,
as opposed to just another saxophone player?
Shrude: No. The ones who have asked
are on a very high professional level, too, and that has to be a consideration.
But having my husband as a reference to try things is invaluable.
BD: Your daughter is playing violin.
Have you written some things specifically for her?
Shrude: This new piece [on the Cube concert]
was specifically for her, and although she’s played in some of my chamber
pieces, I wanted to write a piece for her.
BD: Is it strange for you, or for her, to
no longer be mother-daughter, but collaborators?
Shrude: We have to forget a little bit about
being mother-daughter. When I’m performing, I forget about being
BD: [Genuinely surprised] Really???
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews
with Steve Reich*,
and Toru Takemitsu.]
Shrude: I try. Especially when rehearsing,
there are things I try to fix, but when you’re performing, you have
to perform, and you concentrate differently.
BD: Do you also perform other new music, as well
as your own?
Shrude: Oh, yes.
BD: And other old music?
Shrude: Not too much old music anymore.
I used to play a lot of piano for many people, but I have had to really
BD: If you could clone yourself, would you
have one be just the pianist, and one be just the composer, and one be
just the wife and mother?
BD: You want all of it wrapped up together?
BD: Is that what music is
— wrapping up a lot of things together?
Shrude: It could be...
BD: Are you at the point in your career that you
want to be right now?
Shrude: No, I’ve a long way to go. [Laughs]
I don’t feel that I’ve arrived. There are things that I
want to do yet, and I think I have more music to write yet.
BD: You have several commission all lined
up waiting to be written?
Shrude: I have, yes. With my leave of
absence, I have two projects.
BD: Is that comforting or frightening to know
that you’ve got them lined up?
Shrude: It’s fine. It’s good.
You have to have something to do during this time.
BD: In the end, is it all worth it?
Shrude: Yes! Oh, definitely, yes.
* * *
BD: Have you any advice for audiences?
Shrude: Keep an open mind. Ask
questions, and don’t be afraid to try something different. Tonight’s
concert was free, so they had nothing to lose. At universities especially,
there are free things going on all the time. If you really are
a lifelong learner, there are so many opportunities. Plus, there
is radio, of course! [Both laugh] Just seek out opportunities
and try to grow.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future of
Shrude: [Hesitates] I’m a little
worried, but I don’t think it’s going to go away. I worry about
all the wonderful young people who are in school, just pouring their
hearts into their education, and I hope they can live out their dream.
BD: I’ve asked you about performances, and
there are also a number of recordings of your music. Are you pleased
with the recordings, since they have a little more longevity and universality?
Shrude: Yes, and there’s more control when you’re
making a recording. You can do a lot of cutting and pasting, so
we try to get it to be the best that we can.
BD: But I hope that’s not the only way to
do any piece, especially if it’s a composer-supervised
recording, or one where the composer participates.
Shrude: No! It’s not the only way,
but you do have a lot of control over a recording situation.
I’ve seen miracles in a recording studio, literally.
BD: Would you want to transfer that kind of
miracle to a live performance?
Shrude: No, but recordings have become museum pieces
now, and you want to get it as close to being whatever you think is perfect
as you can. That’s an opportunity, and it’s different, but I’d
rather perform than record any day. Recording is drudge, hard
drudge work because you have to play it over and over and over to get
BD: Does that wring the emotion out of it?
Shrude: Sometimes I think it does. There
is a sterility, sometimes, in recordings that isn’t in a live performance.
BD: Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?
Shrude: [Thinks a moment] You can get somewhere
near, but what’s perfect?
BD: Do you always strive for it?
BD: I hope you come close many times.
Shrude: I try.
BD: I assume you’re always glad to be
Shrude: Yes, I definitely am. I feel
BD: Thank you so much for speaking with me.
It’s been a long day for you, and I appreciate your taking this extra
Shrude: Oh, you’re welcome.
© 2001 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 14, 2001.
Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following year, and again
in 2005, and 2017. This transcription
was made in 2021, 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.
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.