Composer  Shulamit  Ran

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie

shulamit ran

Shulamit Ran, (שולמית רן‎), born October 21, 1949 in Tel Aviv, Israel, began setting Hebrew poetry to music at the age of seven. By nine she was studying composition and piano with some of Israel’s most noted musicians, including composers Alexander Boskovich and Paul Ben-Haim, and within a few years she was having her works performed by professional musicians and orchestras. As the recipient of scholarships from both the Mannes College of Music in New York and the America Israel Cultural Foundation, Ran continued her composition studies in the United States with Norman Dello-Joio. In 1973 she joined the faculty of University of Chicago, where she is now the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Music. She lists her late colleague and friend Ralph Shapey, with whom she also studied in 1977, as an important mentor.


In addition to receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, Ran has been awarded most major honors given to composers in the U.S., including two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, grants and commissions from the Koussevitzky Foundation at the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fromm Music Foundation, Chamber Music America, the American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters, first prize in the Kennedy Center-Friedheim Awards competition for orchestral music, and many more.

Her music has been played by leading performing organizations including the Chicago Symphony under both Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph Von Dohnányi in two U.S. tours, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Gary Bertini, the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and Gustavo Dudamel, the New York Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, The Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Yehudi Menuhin, the Baltimore Symphony, the National Symphony (in Washington D.C.), Contempo (the Contemporary Chamber Players) at the University of Chicago under both Ralph Shapey and Cliff Colnot, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Jerusalem Orchestra, the vocal ensemble Chanticleer, and various others. Chamber and solo works are regularly performed by leading ensembles in the U.S. and elsewhere, and recent vocal and choral ensemble works have been receiving performances internationally.

Between 1990 and 1997 she was Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, having been appointed for that position by Maestro Daniel Barenboim as part of the Meet-The-Composer Orchestra Residencies Program. Between 1994 and 1997 she was also the fifth Brena and Lee Freeman Sr. Composer-in-Residence with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where her residency culminated in the performance of her first opera, “Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk)." She was the Paul Fromm Composer in Residence at the American Academy in Rome, September-December 2011.

Ran served as Music Director of “Tempus Fugit," the International Biennial for Contemporary Music in Israel in 1996, 1998 and 2000. Since 2002 she is Artistic Director of Contempo (Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago). In 2010 she was the Howard Hanson Visiting Professor of Composition at Eastman School of Music. Shulamit Ran is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where she was Vice President for Music for a 3-year term, and of the American Academy of Arts and Science. The recipient of five honorary doctorates, her works are published by Theodore Presser Company and by the Israeli Music Institute, and recorded on more than a dozen different labels.

Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory, String Quartet No. 3, was commissioned by Music Accord, a consortium of concert presenters in the U.S. and abroad, for Pacifica Quartet, and received its first performance in June 2014 in Tokyo.

--  Names which are links in this box (and throughout this webpage) refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD  

Most composers who are successful are articulate in music.  They put down on the paper (or, these days, manipulate their electronics) exactly what they create in their imagination.  Some
especially those who become good teachersare also verbally articulate, and express their thoughts and ideas well using the spoken language.  One such person with this double virtuosity is Shulamit Ran.

shulamit ran Born in Israel and trained in New York, she has spent most of her creative life in Chicago, both at the University of Chicago, and with our two world-class performing entitiesthe Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.  It has been my great pleasure to have heard her music performed by both of these groups.  It has also been my privilege to have interviewed her twiceat the end of 1994, and in the middle of 1997.  The first was a general conversation, the usual one that I did with most composers.  The second was designed specifically to promote her just-completed opera Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk).

Portions of both conversations aired on WNIB, Classical 97, and later on WNUR, and Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.  Now I am able to present the full transcript of both chats together on this webpage.

Bruce Duffie:   You’ve been involved in music since you were very, very young.  Has it surprised you where music has gone, or has taken you?

Shulamit Ran:   Oh, yes.  I suppose, at a certain level it never ceases to surprise me.  In other ways, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the twists and turns of fashions and fads.  Whichever way things progress after a while, and after giving it a lot of thought, you just assume that it’s going to go its way, and you’re going to go your way,  Perhaps, some of the time the two shall meet, and other times they won’t, and that’s okay, too.

BD:   That’s looking forward.  Are you conscious of being part of a lineage of composers?

SR:   Oh, yes.  You could go back quite a way.  Most certainly, I dearly love Western music history, and I feel very much a part of it, whether it is Bach or Beethoven, or much earlier, or much later as well.  I definitely feel that I’m part of a whole tradition, and I don’t think in terms of destroying that tradition, by any means.  I’m just interested in saying whatever it is I’m saying, but at the same time I’m very, very much aware of the great and incredible music that came before.

BD:   Without naming names, are there some that are trying to destroy this tradition?

SR:   This is not the time a lot of people would talk in such terms.  In any case, right now it seems almost fashionable to look back on the Sixties in music as though it were some terrible period in Twentieth Century music history.  Yes, at a certain level you could say that people back then were pushing things to extremes in ways that perhaps will not make a whole lot of sense, except that people were exploring everything that was possible.  Nothing was taken for granted.  People were questioning the most basic issues having to do with musical discourse.  That was very healthy to do, and even though there were many times that I felt myself in despair over what was going on around me, at the same time it was a time of great discovery and a time of re-evaluation.  The best things that seem to be carrying on now would not have been possible quite the same way if that period of examination and evaluation, and, to a certain extent, destruction had not taken place.

BD:   Was it something of a mirror of the times which were exploding in other ways?

SR:   Oh, sure, yes.

BD:   Was it a mirror, or was it a lead?  Was it leading or following the times?

SR:   Who knows?  That is the question of the chicken or the egg, whatever comes first.  It’s all intertwined together, and I’m not sure it is essential to ask the question.  It was a time of great re-evaluation and reexamination in all areas, and to some extent we are generally in the forefront of things because artists ask more questions than most.  But it’s all part and parcel of the same thing.

BD:   Is it fun being in the forefront of everything?

SR:   [Laughs]  I don’t know.  Are you asking me whether it is fun being an artist, because I’m not about to assume grandiosely that I’m in the forefront of everything.  I just do my thing, and try to take pleasure in what I do, and whether it’s in the forefront of things, who knows? 

BD:   Is it fun being an artist?

SR:   Fun’s probably not the word I would use for it, although there are moments that are there.  I’ve often felt that it is the agony and the ecstasy.  That’s more apt a description about moments of great height.  There are moments that are very special and exhilarating when everything seems to be worthwhile, and then there are a lot of difficult times, and grueling times, and times that are sheer hard work.

BD:   [With a wink]  There’s nothing wrong with hard work.

SR:   [Smiles]  No, there’s nothing wrong with hard work.  Sometimes people do have this idea of it being a figment of some miraculous moment of inspiration, and that’s all there is to it.  You sit there, and you wait for the muse to hit you, and there’s an element of that.  That’s the element which is most illusive, and the most impossible to explain, but that’s really just a very small part of what it’s all about.  There’s a lot of hard work involved.  There’s the hard work of trying to keep sight of the vision that you have of things, and going after it, and making every effort to capture it.  That sometimes takes a great deal of discipline, and a great deal of hard work.  There is a great deal of trashing things that aren’t quite what you want them to be, and the courage to pursue and persist, and say this is not right, not what I want it to be, until if you not necessarily find it, at least you come a little closer.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you sit down to start a piece, is the vision absolutely clear, or does it become more clear as you get into the piece?

SR:   It really is both.  At a certain level, it’s seems very clear.  Sometimes I think that in a split-second I can hear the entire piece that I’m about to compose, but that’s really an illusion.  But I suppose that illusion is what keeps you searching and trying all the next nine or ten months, however long it may take, of trying to separate the strands of that split-second image, and make the fifteen-, twenty-, thirty-minute long work out of it.  It is an illusion, but it is something that pushes you forward.  In the more concrete ways, the image, the vision, crystallizes over the process of working it out, over the process of composing.

shulamit ran BD:   When you are starting a piece, are you aware of how long it will take to perform it once it’s finished?

SR:   I generally have some sense of the time-frame I’m aiming for.  The time element is so crucial in music.  It is really, perhaps, the most basic way in which music differs from visual arts.  It unfolds in time, and therefore that is such an essential matter to come to grips with, even before you ever get started.  I would compare that to the decision a painter would make, whether he or she is going to use a small canvas, or a very large one, or a medium-sized one.  That will have implications for everything that is going to happen, and similarly, I am in a different mindset, compositionally speaking, if I am about to compose a short piece, than if I am about to compose a symphony.  So, yes.

BD:   You are composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony, and eventually you’ve going to also hold the same position at Lyric Opera.

SR:   Actually, I am already officially their composer-in-residence as of last July.  [Vis-à-vis the record jacket shown at left, see my interviews with Philip Glass, George Perle, Joseph Schwantner, Joan Tower, and Charles Wuorinen.]

BD:   So the two are running concurrently for a while?

SR:   For the time-being, yes. They are very different types of residencies, and it is almost humorous that they have the same title.  I suppose it’s a convenient title both ways, but actually the tasks and responsibilities are very, very different.

BD:   Let’s deal with each one.  What, specifically, are the tasks of the composer-in-residence for a symphony orchestra, and would those tasks be different if it were a smaller orchestra, as opposed to a world-class orchestra?

SR:   There would certainly be differences.  Different situations require different approaches, and so you would aim for different things in certain ways.  But still, essentially you are dealing with a situation where there’s a fairly substantial number of concerts a year, so there is a lot that can and should be done by way of balancing the repertoire that is being played by the orchestra.  If you were dealing with a much smaller orchestra that would have a much tinier series, then the problems would be different, or would be of a different proportion, but it’s really a very different thing than with an opera house, where there is a relatively small number of productions a year, and the decisions about programming are made in an altogether different way.  I’m not in any way going to be involved with the same kind of questions that come for the Symphony Orchestra.  At Lyric Opera, I’m not in any way going to advise or involve myself in issues of programming.  I have really just a single task with the opera, a very grand task, writing an opera.  This is what it is all about.

BD:   How is that different from just being commissioned to write an opera, as opposed to being a composer-in-residence?

SR:   It is really not all that different, and one could call it something else.  One could talk about it as a commission, which it is.  One difference is that program at the Lyric, their Center for American Artists, which is designed to provide a situation where the composer-in-residence supports that system.  That’s very interesting, and it’s enormously valuable, especially for somebody who has the stipulation of our situation.  I am writing my first opera, and it is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time.  For fifteen years I’ve been saying I wanted to write an opera, and finally the time has come to put the word into action.  I have the possibility of going to rehearsals, of meeting the singers, of seeing how things are put together, of really becoming immersed in the whole process of not only composing, but producing and mounting an opera, which is another whole kettle of fish!  [Both laugh]  Sometimes I talk it out with people, about how this is in connection my residency with the Symphony, which is now in its fifth year.  People don’t realize how, when a new symphonic piece, has been written or commissioned by the Symphony, is about to be performed.  The premiere takes place on a Thursday night, and the first rehearsal will happen at the earliest on the Tuesday proceeding that Thursday, and sometimes only on Wednesday, and even Wednesday late in the day.  So just imagine a composer, having spent months or maybe years working on a piece, and really having the whole thing in his or her head, and writing it all down, and hoping that what is on paper is actually an accurate replica of what is in the mind, and then, a day before the world premiere, getting to finally hear it.  If there are matters that need some further refinement, it’s too late.  You can maybe go into the library and mark some dynamics, or do a little bit of something with balances, but that’s about it.

shulamit ran

Ran acknowledging applause after a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Barenboim can be seen applauding at left.

BD:   Is there no way to convince the management that the first performance by of any piece, especially a world premiere, be rehearsed at least once the previous week, or even a month ahead of time?

SR:   A lot of people would agree with you that it’s a very, very good idea, but it doesn’t appear that a lot of people are finding ways to make it happen.  That probably has to do with the realities of concert life, and concert managing, and the way that maestros zip in and out of their place where they conduct.  The set-up is such that rehearsals begin for any subscription series two days before the event, and the technical as well as the musical level of orchestras today
certainly great orchestras like the Chicago Symphonyis so extraordinary that you really can, in a day or two, mount a terrific performance.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  I have heard from some players that if they had another day just to let it soak into their systems, rather than just crowding it all into one, it would be so much better.  Couldn’t we write it into the contract that even if it isn’t the conductor who will do the performance, maybe the resident conductor just simply reads through the piece to let the players get the feel for it, so they come with a little more experience to that first rehearsal with the conductor?

SR:   [Laughing]  What can I say?  I will bring your suggestion up, but it certainly has already come up, and it’s not all that realistic.  There are differences, even minute differences, in the personnel of the orchestra from week to week.  There is a rotation system, and there are also things that go into this which, for reasons that are hard to understand it, must be very difficult to make such an idea which, on the face of it, seems so simple and so very, very logical, actually happen.

shulamit ran BD:   [Still being ever hopeful]  But I would think those problems would pale in comparison to just getting the piece experienced.

SR:   Yes, I agree with you.  It would be a wonderful thing if that could happen.

BD:   Is all of this problem because new music, at least for the last twenty or thirty years, has been the poor stepchild of the music director and of the subscription series?

SR:   I don’t know that those two matters are necessarily related.  In any case, if we’re talking specifically about this orchestra, and this situation, new music is an important priority for Maestro Barenboim, and has been for as long as I know of his activities.  When he first came here, people were not as aware of the fact that he’d done a tremendous amount of new music in Europe.  Now there is a much greater realization of that under his directorship.  There’s a great deal that’s happening, both by way of commissioning, and by way of performing and at times repeating new works that have either been written for the orchestra, or else that Barenboim especially favors.  I have never felt at any point of my residency here that I had to fight anybody about the idea of the importance of integrating contemporary music.

BD:   In years past, Solti was accused of not doing enough new music.  He did some, but perhaps not enough.

SR:   It was probably less of a priority with him than it is with Barenboim, though I would have to say that, looking back, Solti did some very major premieres, and had a wonderful sense for what was special.  Lutosławski’s Third Symphony, for example, was a Solti commission, and Solti premiere.  [The Chicago Symphony later recorded this work led by Barenboim.]

BD:   There were also some works of Tippett...

SR:   Some major Tippett works, that’s right [including Byzantium and the Fourth Symphony both premiered and recorded by the CSO led by Solti].  So he did modern things, too, but he would be the first to admit that this was less of a priority with him.  Generally speaking though, you have touched on a very, very important and very crucial point, and that is that of the pie of music-making, new music takes a very, very small slice in America, and that’s a great pity.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the orchestras, in terms of their audience, tend to be a conservative institution.  Audiences come to the Symphony very often not to really prepared to experience new works, but rather wanting their love for past music to be confirmed again and again.  I find that a very sad and unfortunate statement.  Maybe it’s an issue of education.  There’s certainly an attempt to do as much as possible in that direction.  There are pre-concert discussions, and I’m a great advocate of them.  I’m involved in them, and do them, but sometimes I think that we are talking to the converted, that the people who come to the pre-concert discussions are the very people who are curious.  They are not people that you can necessarily typecast.  You can’t assume that they are going to be young students who are interested in the latest new music.  You get people of all ages and of all walks of life.  The one thing that is characteristic of them is that they want to know a little bit more about what is going to unfold in front of them once the concert begins at 8 o’clock.  So, it’s really a wonderful audience to talk to, but that covers about two or three hundred people.  There is still a whole hall full of people who come, many of whom really think of a concert as something that experiences a relaxing entertainment after a hard day at the office.  That doesn’t really cover the full range of what a concert can or should be.

BD:   Okay, what should a concert be?

SR:   Some time ago, I was in one of the interviews that I was doing for Chicago Symphony, and I was talking to Ursula Oppens, the pianist who does an enormous amount of new music.  In that conversation, she said people used to go to concerts to find out what’s going on.  That’s such a simple phrase, to find out what’s going on.  Isn’t that what maybe it should be?  It is so simple, so direct, and so right, and yet so missing much of the time.

BD:   How can we get more of the audience to be more curious about new old works, and new new works?

SR:   [Sighs]  Probably it’s part of an overall picture which is not very encouraging.  We live at a time where, as human beings from the earliest time, from childhood, we are less and less asked to use our sense of fantasy.  We’re asked less to stretch ourselves, less to imagine.  There’s more ready-made for us at all levels.  We push a button and there it is on TV.  We don’t have to imagine it anymore.  It’s all there.

BD:   Can I assume that when you write a piece, you’re not going to just serve it up to the people on a silver platter?

SR:   I guess not.  I don’t really think in such terms.  The way to convert what you’re saying to the terminology that I would be thinking of would be that I’m not interested in music that happens in a single dimension.  I’m not interested in music where you hear what you hear on a first hearing, and that’s all there is to it, and you’re going to perceive of exactly the same things in the next year.  I’m more interested in a certain depth of complexity, even though that word has gotten a bad rap and negative connotations, but actually there’s nothing wrong with that term.  There shouldn’t be something wrong with it.  Life is complex.  Human nature is complex.  The human condition is a very complex affair, and so music
which to my mind is a reflection of lifeis a complex phenomenon as well.  The word complex doesn’t have to mean obfuscated to an extent that no matter what, you’re still completely in the dark.  Even in the most complex music, if it has something that is special and compelling to say even on a first hearing, you’re going to have something that will be provocative and haunting, and will want to make you hear it again to discover more of its secrets and more of its riches.

ran BD:   Do you purposely hide things in there, or is that just the way it comes out?

SR:   No, I don’t purposely hide things at all!  It’s just that I like to create something that is going to have multiple levels.  It’s hard even to explain that.  I like things that unfold sometimes contrapuntally with various things happening at one time.  At the same time, hopefully it is all leading to one goal.  Again, I’m fearful that talking about complexity is going to somehow tip the balance in a direction that I don’t think is reflective of my music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You say it goes to one goal.  What is that goal, and does that goal change from piece to piece?

SR:   Oh God!  That’s a million-dollar question for which I have no answer whatsoever.  It’s something that I wouldn’t know how to express verbally.  But there is, in a sense, in the music that I try to write, of some tensions that, over the course of the piece, eventually, if not resolve, come to some kind of a point of combination and perhaps catharsis.  Whether they change from piece to piece, of course they do.  The end of a piece will be the end of wanting to say something specific.  There’s always a sense that each piece is about something else.

BD:   The amount of times that an audience will hear your works is going to be severely limited, unfortunately.  Would you be pleased or horrified if that number were more in line with the number of times that people hear a Beethoven symphony?

SR:   Oh, I would be elated!   I would be absolutely thrilled if they would take the time.  Part of the fact why I think we have more of an appreciation for the past is that we also know it much, much better.  I can say, as far as my own listening experience, that every time that I came to pieces by Beethoven, or by Schumann or whoever, that a first hearing left me still entirely unclear as to what was really going on.  Only subsequent hearings have made things clear, and infinitely more satisfying.  So, the prospect of people hearing everything that a composer and a performer could hope for is a resounding yes.  I’d be thrilled.

BD:   Just to continue to pick on Beethoven momentarily...

SR:   [Interrupting]  Yes, let’s pick on him.  He can take it!  [Both laugh]

BD:   ...his style, his tempos, his phrasing, everything has been debated and argued about, and it seems there are all kinds of ways of doing his music.  Would you encourage this kind of discussion about ways of doing your music?

SR:   Yes, I would.  One of the things that I love the most about being a live composer is working with performers.  That is absolutely one of the most exciting, thrilling, and invigorating experiences in my activities.  I love working with human beings.  I love seeing what they can do with my music, and, in many ways, my most special relationships are professional that they are intertwined with personal, and are with performers.  They really sense that we are somehow striving for that same illusive thing when we’re working on a piece together.  One of the things that find most thrilling is when the performers bring themselves to the interpretation of a work of mine.  The way I see it printed the page is a blueprint, but it is not the performance itself.

BD:   That’s the start rather than the end?

SR:   Yes, that’s right.  So, even though I try to notate things very specifically
because it’s important to try and convey to the performers as much as I possibly can about what it is I’m hearing in my headthe more it is then possible for a performer to come to it.  And once having assimilated that basic blueprint, to come up with something that will be reflective of their own approach, their own personality, who they are.  It’s very, very exciting seeing the different performances that I get of pieces.

BD:   Of course, this requires time, and just sitting with the music and letting it steep in the brain of the performer.

SR:   Yes, yes, that’s right.

BD:   So, actually just two rehearsals are insufficient.

SR:   Yes, but in a way it’s also different, because when you are dealing with an orchestra, you’re dealing with a collective interpretation that is shaped to a very, very great extent by a conductor.  The conductor doesn’t come to the piece two days before the performance.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Hopefully!

SR:   Hopefully!  [Both laugh]  It’s generally true that there’s a period of study, and when the conductor steps onto the podium on that Tuesday or Wednesday before the first performance, he or she already has a very clear idea of where the piece should be going, and the orchestra is the instrument of that conductor.  But still, there is no denying and conductors would be the first to say
and orchestra players would be the first to saythat the longer they are with the piece, the more they can repeat it, the more they all really settle into it in a way that is extremely helpful to the final result.  Very often there is even a difference with the first night (Thursday) and the Saturday night.

shulamit ran BD:   Sure!

SR:   Even just subtleties.  But that’s actually is another point.  You could rehearse a piece to death.  You could rehearse it ten times, and yet between the last rehearsal and the first performance, there’s still something that happens when you go on stage to a hall full of people.  I have said things in the past about the audience that maybe would make one thing that I don’t love the audience.  But I love the audience, and that is absolutely a great thrill to be playing for and to people.  That difference between a rehearsal and a performance is a very crucial step, and it’s after you perform the piece one time that things begin to change in a different way that it wouldn’t change in rehearsals.

BD:   So, that’s the importance of bringing it back for another series of performances in another season?

SR:   Right.  This is why repeating things for audiences and for performers, is crucial for the whole process of music-making.

BD:   We’re talking about orchestral music.  Does this change at all when it’s chamber music, where just a few players are rehearsing, and a different kind of audience is coming to listen?

SR:   As far as the players, certainly there’s a big difference when you’re doing a quartet, or whatever combination you’re working with.  Each player has an enormous part in shaping the direction in which the piece is going to go, and in its interpretation.  Then, of course, it’s a very, very close collaboration.  As far as the audience, who knows?  I suppose there are different types of audiences, and to some extent they overlap.  Audiences that will gravitate to new music will be very often different audiences.  So yes, things change.

BD:   As a composer, would you rather have your music played on concerts of new music for the new music audience, or would you prefer to have it on general programs with a non-specific audience?

SR:   Generally speaking, I much prefer the format of a new composition being placed in the context of music of all times.  I actually think that a great many composers would agree with that.  I don’t like the idea of being part of a new music ghetto.  That’s really not the way I would like the music to be perceived.  My music tries to say the same things as older music.  I can’t say them in words, but I still think they are the same things that composers tried to say two hundred years ago, and a hundred years ago.  It’s just that my language is different.  My language is that of the child of this era, but the essential things are not all that different.  I, as a listener, would much rather hear a mixed program, a program that’s broad stylistically.  So, as a composer, I would similarly prefer that approach.  The best performers are often the ones who play a wide range of music.  The people that play Beethoven the best are usually often the people that I’ve felt happiest with their performances of my music.

BD:   You’ve worked very hard in each piece to set down exactly what instruments you want to play where, and you know the sound of these instruments and what they’re going to produce.  Let’s look forward just a little bit.  As instruments change, as ideas change, we might get orchestras of not necessarily electronics, but that kind of major jump from old instruments to new instruments.  Do you want your music played a hundred years from now on the new instruments, or do you want always original instruments?

SR:   [Laughs]  That’s a great question, and one that I would have to confess I haven’t really thought about in terms of being a composer.  Generally speaking, when I think of the idea of period instruments, that’s very exciting.  At the same time, I like to hear music played on today’s instruments just as much, and often more than on the period instruments.  I would like for there to be room for both approaches.  I hope that this won’t get everybody sending protest letters, but I enjoy hearing Bach played on the piano.  It’s still Bach, and it’s still incredible, but I’m not put off by the idea of playing composers on modern instruments.  So, I suppose I would have to translate this into the future, and assume that there’ll be fantastic ways of producing music on all instruments in the future.  But who knows?  It is clearly a very interesting thing to try and speculate.  It’s very telling to hear older music played on the pianoforte, or on other period instruments.  It tells you a great deal about the music as its composer was hearing it.  There’s room for all of it, and I would rather not have just one or the other.

*     *     *     *     *

ran BD:   When you’re recommending pieces for the Symphony to play, how do you decide which kinds of things you’re going to recommend?  What kinds of things do you look for in those pieces?

SR:   I personally look for something that I would feel compelled by, for something where I would want to follow the journey of that piece from its first to its last note.  It’s really not a stylistic issue.  I hope I’ve been able to maintain a fairly broad view of what good music is, and it’s not a matter if it’s written in one style or in another.  Style is a language, but it’s still what you say, and how you say it, and can be done in many, many ways to say special things.  The more music I see and hear, the more I realize that.  But in some sense, this is music that I want to experience, music that compels me to listen to it, and therefore hope that the same will be experienced by other listeners.

BD:   Because you are commissioned by the Chicago Symphony, does that put an undue amount of pressure on you to write a masterpiece?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Mary Stolper.]

SR:   [Thinks a moment]  The pressure comes from within you, really.  Sure, to have the opportunity to write for a great orchestra reminds you of all sorts of things by way of your responsibility and your opportunity.  But I must say that has never been the decisive factor for me.  The decisive factor has been the fact that I’ve always wanted to put everything that I have into everything I write.  Whether it will be a masterpiece, that’s a whole other thing, but the desire for everything to be meaningful doesn’t matter if it’s for a solo flute or a full orchestra.  Of course, it’s a great compliment to be able to write for a great orchestra, but it’s not the thing that propels me forward.

BD:   Is there, perhaps, too much expectation on the part of the management, and the critics, and the audience?

SR:   It’s certainly fair to always come expecting the most and best, and I would like audiences to come expecting that of my music, too.  I don’t mind that sense of expectation.  It’s just another thing, another goal to strive for.  It has to come from within you, but it’s all right with me to have expectations from the outside as well.

BD:   Right now [1994] you’re so involved with the Chicago Symphony, and you’re getting involved with Lyric Opera.  Are you able to accept any commissions besides those two huge organizations?

SR:   I’ve really cleared my deck completely... well, I should say almost completely.  There’s always that exception, but on the whole, and certainly over the next two and a half years, I’m not planning on working on anything other than the opera... which, when you consider the other things that I’m doing in my life, is still a very short time.  In concert performances, the rehearsals start a day or two before the concert.  With an opera, it’s a month of preparation, and a month of production, so the opera has to be prepared and  ready in about in two years from now.

BD:   We will come back to the opera, but let’s think about the times when you’re not involved in any one huge project.  If your desk is clear and you’re looking around, and you get a bunch of offers, how do you decide which commission you will accept and which commission to turn aside?

SR:   On the whole, I’ve been very, very privileged and lucky in the last fifteen years or so, in that just about everything I’ve written was by commission.  That’s been very great privilege, also a challenge, and at the same time a luxury.  I really don’t at all preclude the possibility that there’ll be times that I would say no.  I just want to write things that at that moment I want to write, and there have been such times even within this period of fifteen years.  There were certain things that I wanted to write that were not by commission, and I just went ahead and did them.  This was what was going to be the case with the opera.  I had decided, finally, two years ago, that I was really going to write an opera, and stopped accepting commissions and starting saying to the word ‘no’ again and again, hard as it was.  Then the Lyric approached me, and that was actually a surprise, and a wonderful coincidence because they came and suggested I do that which I was planning on doing anyway.  I had really decided in my mind that no matter what, whether I’m commissioned or not, an opera is what’s going to come next.

BD:   Did you decide you were going to write an opera, or that you were going to write this specific opera?

shulamit ran SR:   There were several things that I had had in my mind, several possibilities that I was playing with, and the particular situation with the Lyric, and their Center for American Artists, made it possible for me to actually decide, which was good.  It was healthy to be put in a position that I had to really make up my mind and get going.  But you asked about the matter of commissions.  There have been things in my life that were good, and probably the most interesting case was ten years ago, when I was approached by the Eastman School of Music for a commission for Jan DeGaetani, the great, great singer whom we all miss so terribly.  She really was such a great singer, a great human being.  She was somebody at the time I did not know personally, but I loved her singing.  There were certain pieces, for example, George Crumb’s Ancient Voices for Children, and various other works that were written for her, which she premiered, which, to me, were really the epitome of what gorgeous vocal music of our time should be.  I always felt there was one person that I would want to write for, and of all the performers, no matter what instrument, it would be Jan DeGaetani.  So, when I was approached by Eastman, where she was on the faculty, and was asked if I would write for her, of course I leapt at the opportunity.  The commission was for Jan De Gaetani, oboe alternating with English Horn, viola da gamba, and harpsichord... [looking intently at the interviewer] and youre making a face!

BD:   It’s a very strange combination.

SR:   I thought so too, initially.  As to how it came about, this was just before the big multiple centennial in 1985 of Bach, Scarlatti and Schütz, and all those guys!  [Both laugh]  DeGaetani and her husband, Philip West, the oboe and English horn player, and another couple, Martha McGaughey
, a viola da gamba player, and Arthur Haas, her husband, a harpsichordist, all of whom were at Eastman, who wanted four works for that multiple centennial.  But they also wanted one new work to take along, and this is how this commission came about [Amichai songs for mezzo-soprano, oboe/English horn, viola da gamba, and harpsichord, with words by Yehuda Amichai, translated from the Hebrew by the author and Ted Hughes].  My first thought was how do this.  My second thought was that if Jan DeGaetani wants me to write for her and kazoo, I’ll do that!  It became a matter of really learning the viola da gamba, which, for me, from a composer’s point of view, was a brand new instrument.  It was very exciting, and I ended up loving the task.  It was really a great challenge, but also a great discovery for me.  So, these are the things that all start out sometimes as seemingly impossible, but if there is a reason to want to really want delve into it, as there was there, you learn a lot from it.

BD:   So you were forced to look into a different corridor, and you found that exciting?

SR:   Yes, I found it very exciting.  I got together with Mary Springfels, the wonderful gamba player who was here in Chicago at the time.

BD:   Does that experience, having looked into an unknown corridor, make you more optimistic if you are asked to look into a different unknown corridor a few years from now?

SR:   Oh, sure, absolutely!  I’m all for opening doors and peeping through, and discovering, and finding.  It’s really been the case of my life from the beginning.  When I was still a child, I was first singing my songs because that was the only instrument that I knew, the one sitting in my throat.  Then, when I started studying piano I would compose for the piano.  But very, very soon thereafter that wasn’t enough either, and I thought I really want to hear two flutes, and then it was flute, clarinet and bassoon, and then an orchestral piece.  So, I’ve always wanted to explore that which I didn’t know yet, but wanted to make my own.   That’s been part of the excitement.

BD:   Did it always grow naturally, and continue to grow?

SR:   Yes, and lucky for me it’s been good [laughs], and it’s given me many opportunities to learn new things, and to do the things that I love.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You are still teaching?

SR:   Yes.

BD:   Do you get enough time to compose as well as teach?

SR:   It’s hard sometimes, yes.  A colleague was talking about another colleague the other day, and saying that they compose every day, and I thought to myself there are times that I’d be happy if I could say I compose every week, or every month.  It is a balancing act, really very, very tricky and difficult at times.  I’m teaching at the University of Chicago right now half-time, and have been since assuming the residency with the Chicago Symphony.  As far as working with my students, that I do full-time.  What I don’t do is teach the two courses that I would be teaching otherwise over the course of the year.

BD:   Would your music be different if you didn’t have any teaching responsibilities?

shulamit ran SR:   That’s so hard to answer.  I really don’t know.  I am a firm believer that the music one writes is ultimately a reflection of one’s life, and one’s existence... even though I don’t really believe in a one-to-one relationship in the sense that if I get up in the morning and I’m in a bad mood, or somebody’s called me up and said something that I wasn’t looking forward to hearing, then I’m going to be writing angry music.  No, I don’t believe that’s the way it actually happens.  A piece has its own life, so to speak, and you can dream it particularly well if the stimuli that happens at the time you are composing is helpful.  But in a much broader sense, everything that you are, everything that happens to you, everything that your life is about does make its way into your music.  So, I suspect that my life would be very different if I was not involved with the University.  It’s not just teaching, it’s the involvement with people, with students, with colleagues, and an institution.  There are so many facets to it.  Life would be different, and probably ultimately that would show itself in my music.  I don’t know in which way, but I’m sure it would have some effect.

BD:   You’re teaching just graduate-level composition students?

SR:   Yes.  Every once in a while, I find myself working with an undergraduate who is interested in composing, but basically it’s the graduate program.

BD:   These are people who are hoping to have a career composing music?

SR:   Right, yes.

BD:   Are you pleased with what you see coming off of their pages?

SR:   I have some wonderfully gifted and fine students, and I find myself very often very pleased and delighted, and surprised.  There are all sorts of good things with music that I see coming out of my students, other people’s students, and of young composers in general.  Here at the Chicago Symphony, I get loads of calls from all over the place, and many of them are by young composers.  There are a lot of people who have special things to say.  I worry about them, but that’s a different thing.  I’ve taken, in recent times, to having a serious conversation with every composer that comes to me either with the thought of coming to study at the University of Chicago, or generally thinking of going into the life of a composer.  I say to them,
Do you know what you getting yourself into?  It’s very, very, important to realize that.

BD:   I assume they don’t actually know the ramifications of such a decision?

SR:   Some of them don’t think about it in the realistic sense of what life is going to be like for them.  They want to do it.  They like writing music, and it feels good to them to write music, so they think they’re going to become composers.  But there are still issues of what life is going to be like with that choice, and many of them guess they’ll teach at a university.  That’s a lucky thing when it happens.  There are far, far more composers out there trying to make a living than there are universities and college openings are ready to accept them.

BD:   Are there too many composers around?

SR:   It’s so hard to say if there are too many composers around because there’s a lot of wonderful music being written.  So, is there too much wonderful music being written?  You can’t really say that, but I must say we are in a heavily saturated field for which the demands seem to be very small, dismally small, sadly small.  I would so much rather see a situation where every performing institution was going back to the premise of people coming to hear what’s happening, and where there would be the desire to experience works just written for the time.  Then, you are not going to like some of them.  Maybe some of them even flopped, but that’s okay because it’s part of that unfolding sense of going on and of creating things, some of which, in time, will turn out to have been very exciting.

BD:   What advice do you have for the composers that are coming to you?

SR:   Other than thinking very seriously and very hard about the choices that they are making, and realizing that most likely it’s going to be a very rough road?

BD:   There, you’re talking about life choices.

SR:   Yes, but as far as the actual professional ideas
and I hate to use the word professional, because somehow when it comes to music, but all the artsthe professional is also the personal.  It’s your life.  It’s so hard to talk just in those terms, as if you’re separating somehow from yourself and from who you are.  But my advice to my students is generally to find within them a sense of vision of what they’re after.  But even that is not something that you can do by decree.  You can’t say to people, “Have a vision!  [Both laugh]  But on the one level, I want people to simply write music that they themselves would want seriously to sit down and listen to.

BD:   Is this something that you look for in a young composer
someone who has this vision?

SR:   I suppose really the best, the most interesting, the most exciting voices that I’ve heard compositionally-speaking were ones who had, and are ones who have a vision, who are somehow internally obsessed by something.  Again, it may not be clearly put into words, but it is that they are following and pursuing that vision.  Yes, I think that is somehow part of being an artist.  It’s not just about putting down dots on paper.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re the holder of the Pulitzer Prize.  What affect has this had on you, either personally or musicallyif any at all?

SR:   Lots more phone calls!  [More laughter]  When the award was announced, I was thrilled as anybody could be thrilled, naturally.  Nonetheless, on the same day when I was asked essentially the same question that you are asking, I said that the award, great as it is, and the honor it is
of being given by your peers, neither validates nor invalidates what you do.  It still has to come from within the music and within you, and that hasn’t changed.  So, in an essential, profound way, the Pulitzer Prize hasn’t changed, and cannot and shouldn’t change anything.  Prizes are, of course, very, very nice, and you’re very grateful when they come your way, but, at the same time, it’s what we’ve been talking — about for the last hourit’s got to come from within you.

BD:   I very rarely ask a composer to talk about another composer, but I would like you to talk about one of your teachersPaul Ben-Haim.

SR:   I’m delighted that you’re asking me that question.  He was someone that I really wanted very much to study with when I was a young child in Israel.  I decided when I was twelve that I was going to study with him no matter what, and indeed pursued that, and went to study with him in Tel Aviv.  I would come to see him every week, and the thing that I said at the time and that I feel to this day is that he gave me wings.  By that, I mean rather than at the time just worry about my technique, my style, what direction I was going to go in, he allowed me to explore, to try the things that I wanted to try.  He offered a deal of encouragement.  Certainly, his own approach to technique was first class, and he was a very, very skilled musician and an extraordinarily musical person.  So, there was no question of the great command that he possessed, and he was able to help me with those things.  But really, the most important thing was that he gave me wings, and allowed me to spread my wings, which, at that time in my life, was the most important thing that anyone would do for me.  I have extremely
fond memories of him, both as a person and as a musician.  It’s funny that I was thinking about him just two days ago.  For some reason I remembered some funny things that he would say at the time.  It was really a wonderful experience going to him once a week in the afternoon, and talking with him about music and about all sorts of other things.  He was a very special human being, and I was lucky to know him.

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BD:   Does this help you to encourage others to perform his music?

SR:   I have, on the whole, been very interested in what happens with music in Israel, and our many wonderful Israeli composers.  I wouldn’t just single out one composer.  There really are many wonderful ones.  It’s funny... there’s a paradox here because in my role with the Chicago Symphony, I feel that it is extremely important to do everything that I can on behalf of American music.  I’m part of an organization that is an American organization, part of American culture, and it is incumbent upon any performing institution, or performer, to do what they can for bettering of the culture of their own place.  You can’t just have culture imported from elsewhere.  You have to nurture your own.  So, even as an Israeli, I still think that my capacity here, my first priority and obligation is to try and do whatever I can on behalf of music being written here.  At the same time, I grieve going back to that small slice of the pie of music-making being the devoted to new music, because in a better world none of this would be important.  In a better world we would be able to explore and experience music from everywhere, and it would be possible to hear a lot of wonderful music that’s written in Israel, and in Poland, and in England, and in Japan, and everywhere else, and not to have to worry about where you live because it would all be getting equal exposure.  As it is, it’s all getting very, very little exposure.  I would love to see more Israeli music known to the public because there’s a lot of beautiful music by Israeli composers, and a lot of fine, fine voices amongst Israeli composers.

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

SR:   Oh, boy, I don’t know.  I don’t know what I expect.  [Laughs]  I don’t think very much in those terms.  I’m doing the things that I want to do, yes.  I have the opportunity to write the opera that I wanted to do.  I’ve been performed by some very great orchestras.  There are a lot of performers who do my music, and I have the sense that my music speaks to them, and means something to them.  So, there is an awful lot that has happened that makes me very, very happy about doing what I’m doing, and I’m not terribly preoccupied with keeping a list of what I want to do by this point or by another point.

BD:   So you have no timetable?

SR:   No, I have no timetable.

BD:   Thank you for all of your own music, and all of the promotion that you have given of other composers’ music.

SR:   It’s a privilege to be able to do this.  A lot of wonderful music to talk about, and I’m happy to do this.

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success.

SR:   Thank you.  Thanks very much!

We now move forward three and a half years to the first day of June, 1997, two weeks before the World Premiere of Rans opera.

shulamit ran BD:   Your opera is called Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk).  What are ‘the two worlds’ we are between?

SR:   The world of the living, and the world of the dead.  This is certainly the most obvious and the most important, though there are other ways of defining the two worlds as well.  But Between Two Worlds is the original title of S. Ansky’s play that we call The Dybbuk
or Tsvishn Tsvey Veltn in Yiddish as lot of people would know itthough it has become more famous as The Dybbuk, which is, in fact, the subtitle.

BD:   How did you come to choose this subject?

SR:   I have simply admired that play for many, many years.  It’s a play that I saw still as a child in Israel.  The Dybbuk has been done in countless theatrical productions throughout the world.  It has been translated and been told into fourteen languages.  Leonard Bernstein did a ballet on it, and George Gershwin had set out to write an opera.  He started sketching, but then found out that another composer had the rights, and so he left that topic alone, which is very lucky for me!  I don’t think I was going to be writing another Porgy and Bess.  [Laughs]  But on the other hand, after I started thinking seriously about doing the opera, I was told there are already no less than eleven Dybbuk operas.  So, that goes to show you that it’s a very, very powerful topic that has attracted a lot of people from different fields.

BD:   When you found out that there are eleven other versions, did you seek them out to look at them, or did you purposely stay away from them?

SR:   I really made the decision to stay away.  I love the play, and I feel a connection with it in many different ways.  So, I just decided that I was going to write my Dybbuk, and I suppose at some point I will encounter other versions as well.  But this one was done without really thinking much about other points of view.

BD:   Did you tailor this particular setting for the singers and the size of the orchestra you had at hand?

SR:   This definitely was part of the parameters with which I was going, of course.  There were a couple of topics that I was toying with in my mind as possibilities for a first opera.  I had wanted to do an opera for quite a while, actually.  I’d been thinking about writing an opera for at least fifteen years, and at a certain point a few years ago I decided that the time had come to put word into action, which, in my case, meant first of all blocking out some time to write an opera.

BD:   You had to work on this exclusively?

SR:   Pretty much, yes.  I did write a couple of short works at the same time, but this is such an intense pre-occupation for me.  I imagine that any opera worth doing would be that type of intense pre-occupation, so I felt I’d better really make the time for a two-hour plus work of music, without other large-scale works competing for my attention.  Once I decided that I was really going to write an opera, I started to look into different topics.  There was one other topic that I found to be a strong possibility, but in terms of the practical considerations
since eventually it turned into a commission by the Lyric Opera for the Lyric Center for American Artiststhat did dictate a certain sizea maximum of about twelve singers, and an orchestra that would fit into a medium-sized pit.  I’m using twenty-five musicians.  I probably could have squeezed in five or six more, except that I’m using a large array of percussion that take space.  So, we’ll have twenty-five musicians.

BD:   You have to take all this into consideration, so it will influence your musical decisions, also?

SR:   It does, it most certainly does, yes.

BD:   Now that all of the music is completely written, has it turned out the way you want?

SR:   For better or for worse, I think yes.

BD:   Then let me change the question slightly.  Has it turned out the way you expected it?

SR:   Part of one’s technique, one’s skill, is to be able to foresee what it is that you’re putting down on paper.  Of course, there always are surprises.  There always is that special magic that you can only tell once something is actually being heard.  But I’ve certainly tried to know what I’m planning, and, in that sense, there are no surprises.  But still, there are these moments...  Certainly, I can tell you that before every rehearsal, when a passage that I have not yet heard is about to be sung for the first time, I sit there with bated breath, and I’m very, very anxious until I actually hear it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve written some music for voice before.  Was it different writing opera, as opposed to chamber music for voice?

SR:   In certain ways it is the same, and in other ways different.  In certain ways I would say that it was no different than writing any other work of mine, instrumental or vocal.  I’ve actually always been attracted to the idea of dramatic form as expressed for music, whether that music is what people tend to call purely abstract music, or music that’s based on text or a topic.  When writing an orchestral work or a chamber work, I always thought of instruments as characters, and of each instrument having a soul, or multiple souls, and approaching it that way.  This pits my characters, or instruments, one against the other, joining and separating, and thinking of it really dramatically.  That’s a very integral part of my thinking.  Of course, now I have real characters to worry about, and I must view motivations and sub-plots, and all those things that happen when you’re actually dealing persons in a truly dramatic sense.  As far as being different from other vocal works, it is the size.  It is a different scale, a different type of canvas when you’re writing a work that is about two hours long.  In that sense, that really means a different way of thinking and of planning.  Another thing is that in the past, when writing vocal works, if you’d asked me if it was necessarily to understand every single word, I would say no.  Some people come to a vocal work, and all they’re trying to do is tune their ear very, very carefully to understand all the words.  For these people, most of the time they would be disappointed, because, for example, in a high range you can barely understand the words no matter how well you set them.  There are limitations, so what are you going to do?  Not use the high range?  Of course not!  But in any case, I’ve always thought what the composer should be after is the meaning behind the words, not necessarily the words per se.  I’d like to convey the emotional world that I’m trying to create without necessarily worrying about each and every word.

BD:   Should we have the subtitles above to coach the people for the words they miss?

shulamit ran SR:   When dealing with text, but not in an operatic sense, my feeling was that if you want to understand each and every word, the time to acquaint yourself with the poetry is before or after.  During the performance, you should just try to embrace the total result, and try to take in the emotional impact that the work is leaving, regardless of whether you catch each and every word.  However, it’s a little different when you’re dealing with a plot, and you’re observing one scene moving into the next, where one might be engulfed by the proceedings as they occur.

BD:   You need to stay with the sequence of events?

SR:   Yes.  I’m not actually a great admirer of supertitles, but since you brought that in, I think they’re very, very useful even where the language spoken in an opera.  Still, there is no question that some words are bound to get lost in any sung way of handling them.  But still, on the whole, I made a very strong effort in this case to make words a high priority, and have intelligibility in a general sense.  In another case, to give you one example, in a previous vocal work called Apprehensions [CD cover shown at right], which is for voice, clarinet, and piano, there is an area in the piece
the third of the fourth movementswhere I’m in fact taking words and chopping them into syllables.  I’m not doing it arbitrarily.  It has a lot to do with a particular state of mind at that point in the poem by Sylvia Plath, where I try to convey having that stuttering effect.  It is not just a sound effect, but also conveys a certain emotional state.  But I don’t know that I would do that in an operatic setting.

BD:   Where did the libretto for the new opera come from?  Did you write it, or did you have someone else fashion it for you?

SR:   No, I did not write it.  I like for each part of what I do to be really professionally done, and I just don’t have the feeling that writing a libretto would be something I would be the best to do.  The person who wrote the libretto for me is Charles Kondek, who is a wonderful person of the theater, and has written several librettos.

BD:   He wrote the libretto for Lee Goldstein’s opera The Fan which was done here in 1989.

SR:   That’s right, and he also wrote the libretto for Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, which is a wonderful opera, and was premiered by the New York City Opera.  That is a very, very powerful piece, and reading the libretto gave me a sense of what Kondek could do, and that he would be a very appropriate person for this work.

BD:   It takes a very special talent to be able to set words that will be then embellished with the music.

SR:   It does, yes, and also it takes being on the same wavelength as the composer for whom you’re writing the libretto.  We did spend some time before Charlie started writing, talking about our conception of this particular piece of theater, which is what it was, of course.  But also, I talked to him a little bit about the things that I like to see in a text that I set.  For example, I personally favor shorter verses and lines, because I like to do things with the words, and be able to repeat certain things in certain ways.  If you’re trying to set a text made up of huge long lines, you just have so much to cover that it doesn’t quite go well with the type of work that I like to do.  So, we talked about those things.

BD:   With longer lines it becomes too talky, rather than melodic?

SR:   Yes, that’s right.  The process of taking something that had one shape
a literary shape, or a poetic shape, or a theater shapeand turning it into an operatic form is really very interesting.  For one thing, a libretto has to be considerably leaner than a play would be.  In a play, it is simply that the time-frame of the spoken word versus the sung word is so different.  If you took a play and tried to set it to music without changes, you would probably have a five-day long opera!  [Both laugh]  The original play was taken and made much, much leaner and crystallized.  A lot of thingsmany wonderful thingshad to go out simply because they were not absolutely germane to the core of the play, which is what we wanted to keep.

BD:   Did you make sure there were references to them, or did you just jettison them completely?

SR:   It depends on the individual case.  There are all sorts of sub-plots, and connections, and tales told pathetically
which are wonderful to read and wonderful in the context of the playand they just had to go out.  In other cases, they are referred to in different and new ways.

shulamit ran

See my interviews with Louise Talma, Miriam Gideon, Marga Richter, Thea Musgrave, Ruth Lomon, and Marta Ptaszynska

BD:   Are you pleased with singers, and how they’re handling your music and his text?

SR:   They’re handling it beautifully.  It’s really a very, very positive environment to be working in.

BD:   Knowing your music, it is, admittedly, difficult...

SR:   It is difficult, and I can’t imagine any of the singers saying it
s a piece of cake.  [Both laugh]  They all have to work very hard at it.  On the other hand, I did not approach this as an opera where I’m writing for twelve people specializing in the performance of new music, such as Bethany Beardslee.  She sang the most recent and most advanced vocal music of our century.  My thinking here was that I was working with singers who command the full range of operatic literature, but are not necessarily specialists... though I’m still treating them in ways that make it necessary for them to stretch and absorb other ways than perhaps some of their previous literature that they are most accustomed to.

BD:   So then it really does grow out of the tradition?

SR:   It really does, yes.  I love writing for the voice.  I think the voice is the most beautiful and expressive of all instruments, and I really enjoyed writing lyrical lines, and lines that would definitely make one think of how grand the operatic literature is and has been for hundreds of years.  So, definitely I’m not pushing away that which came before, but rather thinking of it as a foundation out of which I try to explain my music.

BD:   Do you feel that Mozart and Verdi, and the other great opera composers of the years past, are pleased with your work?

SR:   [Mildly shocked]  Oh, you don’t really mean for me to answer that?!?  [Laughs]  I don’t even know if I’m pleased with my work!  Well, who knows?  I’m writing what I believe I need to write, and I feel that this is honest me, if I may say so.

BD:   That’s the most we can expect of anyone.

SR:   Well, that is the most one should try and strive for.

BD:   I hope it’s a big success.

SR:   Thank you very much.  [The performances would be at the Merle Reskin Theater, formerly the Blackstone Theater, which has 1,333 seats.  We then spoke briefly about the dates and times of the performances, so I could promote them on the air.  After that we let the tape recorder run as we continued to chat just a bit.]

reskin theater

BD:   Is that a good performing space, or have you been in there yet?

SR:   I was there years ago before it changed its name, but the rehearsals haven’t gotten there yet.  We will have to see how it goes.

BD:   I trust you’re used to working in different environments.

SR:   That’s part of what one does, yes.

BD:   Is this a work which maybe should be done on the main stage at the Lyric at some point, or is it designed and should only be done on a small stage?

SR:   No, it’s really designed as something that could be expandable, and I would like to see it that way.  First of all, we are using thirteen singers.  Some of them are doing double roles for a total of about twenty actual roles.  Some of those same thirteen singers are also the chorus, so to speak, and certainly it could take a much bigger chorus.

BD:   But you don’t feel hampered with this version?

SR:   No, no, I don’t.  But on the other hand, I’ve love to see a grand version of it.  Similarly, with the orchestra, the twenty-five people includes nine strings, and I can very well see it tripled and quadrupled for a full string section sound.  So, no, I do not feel hampered.  I don’t think there are compromises here, but at the same time, it is also a very suitable subject, and the conception as we’ve done it can be grand opera.

BD:   A dangerous question perhaps...  Would it have been a little different or a lot different if your cast had included Bethany Beardslee and Joan LaBarbara and Cathy Berberian?

SR:   I can’t answer the question.  It’s a hypothetical question, and I always start with the performers.  The performer is central to my way of thinking.  It is not the only thing, but it’s part of my way of thinking.  A knowledge of the performer does affect the ways in which I think of things.  But in fact I did write the music that I envisioned as being the music for my Dybbuk anyway.  When people ask me about language, I say this is the language of passion and desire, rather than any kind of -ism of the types people generally like to attach to musical and artistic languages.  I think that I really did write the music that I would probably would have written anyway.

BD:   Thank you for spending the time with me today.  I appreciate it.

SR:   Thanks.

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© 1994 & 1997 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on December 1, 1994, and June 1, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1995, 1997, 1999; on WNUR in 2011 and 2012; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2012.  A copy of the unedited audio of the first conversation was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  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.