Composer / Flutist / Conductor  Harvey  Sollberger

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Harvey Sollberger, born May 11, 1938, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a composer, conductor and flutist who has been active in many world musical centers.

Sollberger holds an M.A. degree from Columbia University, where his composition instructors included Jack Beeson and Otto Luening. In 1962 he co-founded (with Charles Wuorinen) The Group for Contemporary Music in New York City, which he directed for 27 years, and from 1997 to 2005 he served as Music Director of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus.

An emeritus professor of music at the University of California, San Diego, he also taught at Columbia University, the Manhattan School of Music, and Indiana University.

Performers of his music have included the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, Tanglewood, June in Buffalo, Interlink (Tokyo), Radio France and Pierre Boulez's Domaine Musical (Paris), TRANSIT (Belgium) and Incontri di Musica Sacra Contemporanea (Rome).

His honors include the Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, two Guggenheim Fellowships and commissions from the Fromm, Naumberg and Koussevitzky Foundations, Music from Japan, Speculum Musicae, the New York New Music Ensemble, the NEA and various state arts councils.

His orchestra performing credits include appearances with the San Francisco Symphony, the San Diego Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the June in Buffalo Chamber Orchestra and the Slee Sinfonietta.

Harvey Sollberger has toured and recorded extensively, and his work as composer and performer is represented on over 130 commercial recordings. Numbered among his premieres are works by Babbitt, Carter, Davidovsky, Felder, Martino, Perle, Reynolds and Wuorinen, and the American premieres of music by Feldman, Holler, Risset, Scelsi, Schnittke, Stockhausen, Tiensuu and Xenakis.

He has, in addition, been Resident Composer at the American Academy in Rome and Composer-in-Residence with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and Red Cedar Chamber Music. In his spare time Harvey Sollberger studies Italian, and has recently translated the autobiography of Italian flutist, Severino Gazzelloni. He currently lives in Iowa.

-- Note: Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

In January of 1994, Harvey Sollberger visited the University of Chicago for a few days to conduct a concert of the Contemporary Chamber Players which opened their thirtieth season.  He was gracious enough to take time from the busy schedule for an interview, and here is what was discussed . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are composer, and conductor, and flutist, and teacher.  How do you divide your time amongst all of those myriad activities?

Harvey Sollberger:    It’s difficult.  It’s time consuming even dividing the time, so I almost have to schedule a time when I decide what I’m going to do.  [Laughs]  Seriously, though, I have cut back very much on my flute playing, partly because I feel there are many terrific flutists in the world playing the difficult, newer pieces that I spent a lot of time playing before.  There’s not as much need for me to do that because it’s being done very well by others.  So I’m focusing more time on composing, teaching, and conducting.

BD:    Were you a particularly good exponent of new music because you are a composer yourself?

HS:    Not necessarily, no.  Like a number of excellent performers who are not composers, I had a curiosity about some of the newer flute music being produced and the very interesting shifts in continuity and view, as well as ideas of time that this music presented.  I also have a problem with many flutists because they seem to want to cluster together in a very safe place, playing the same few pieces over and over again.

BD:    Are these old pieces or new pieces?

sollberger HS:    Generally old pieces, but even with newer pieces there seems to be a timidity about going beyond some of them
like the Berio Sequenza or Edgar Varese’s Density 21.5.  As wonderful as they are, I’ve always tried to encourage my students to try some things they don’t know anything about.

BD:    How far should music expand in terms of complexity and difficulty?

HS:    It’s not so much a matter of complexity or difficulty.  Music is as malleable as the human brain and imagination are, and composers always seem to be challenging us.  I say this as a composer.  I feel challenged by many of my colleagues who force me to stretch and recondition my ideas of what music is possible of and what’s possible in life, because music teaches very much about life and about its possibilities and its potential.  Music is, in a certain sense, life in microcosm, and we learn to live through music.

BD:    Let me turn the question on its head.  Is there anything in music that is not possible?

HS:    I hate to say that there is, because I’m sure as soon as I did somebody would come around and perhaps prove that it is possible.  I may have my own limits, but very often younger people are more willing to stretch the limits.  I hope I haven’t lost certain youthful qualities that make me receptive to, or able to appreciate new modes of expression or perception.  But at the same time, even though I am a composer and am very involved in performance, what always strikes me is that I’m always being astounded by what so many of my composer colleagues do; things that I would never dream of, never think of, and they’re so strong and compelling that I want to experience these things.  It’s possible to experience them directly through my body, through the medium of performance, not just through listening.  When it comes down to it, I would rather do music than listen to it because there is that aspect of physical involvement, and of the body being enlisted in this kind of dance.  When you stop and think about it, conducting
playing a piece, in a certain senseyou are entering into a very close and intimate relation with the imagination of the composer, or even with another person.  In the sense that as I play somebody else’s music, my breathing is conditioned by the music, and in a certain sense, something enters me.  Something takes over my body and my functioning as I submit to this discipline of the piece and its demands.  In the course of surrendering oneself to the demands of a piece of music, one enters a new world.  You are freed from your ego and its limitations.  To a certain degree we’re all prisoners of our genes, our conditioning, our backgrounds, and I look for things that will help me to break through those limits, and to make me realize things that I had not realized before.

BD:    You subjugate yourself to all of these limitations?

HS:    Sure.  I submit.  I say,
“Okay here it is.  It’s notated.  I will do what you say.  You want me to play this note?  I’ll play this note.  I breathe here.  There’s a whole choreography, a whole ritual of physical actions involving my whole body, my fingers, my lips, my lungs.

BD:    How much, then, are you interpreting the piece and putting your own self into it?

HS:    Ah!  That’s the payoff, in a certain sense, because certainly my temperament and all these things that both limit and define me enter into how I inflect those relations that I perform.  So certainly, I’m fine expressing myself.  I’m finding an outlet for my own energies and proclivities through this network of relations that is the piece.  It’s a kind of symbiosis.  It’s a melding of energies, and is a very intimate thing.  It’s a communion with another person’s imagination, with something new resulting that is quite unique.

sollberger BD:    How does all of this change when you are conducting music that you, yourself, have written?

HS:    By the time I’m conducting something I’ve written, generally I approach it as if it were someone else’s music.  The compositional thinking is usually over and done with.  There’s been a period where I’ve been doing other things while the music has been being copied.  I don’t have the problem that a lot of composers who conduct their music seem to have, which is that as they’re conducting their piece, they’re listening to it with their composer mind, and as they listen with their composer mind, the hand gets slower and slower because they’re making compositional judgments or evaluations.  I don’t do that.  I’ve learned not to do that with my own music.  When I have performed the piece and I have a tape of it, or if someone else is performing it and I’m listening, I will be evaluating the work compositionally, and homing in on things that bother me, or noticing things that I like.  But it’s just a particular form of the discipline I have that, when I’m conducting my music, I don’t go weak in the knees and lose it.  It might as well be somebody else’s music; it just happens to be mine.

BD:    Are there times when Harvey the Maestro gets mad at Mr. Sollberger, the composer?

HS:    Not really mad, although sometimes Harvey the conductor sometimes scratches his head at what Harvey the composer has done.  Probably any composer who performs his own music does that.  And in the course of rehearsing a piece I might make small changes, but for the most part that’s usually not necessary.

BD:    Are those changes any more than you would make on someone else’s score that you were conducting?

HS:    No.  If it were someone else’s score, I would not change a dot or a slur, unless that person were there and concurred in it.  But on my own, I would not take responsibility for changing anyone else’s music.

BD:    But you interpret it?

HS:    Yes.  I try to make it come to life.  I try to make sense of it through my own sensibility, and since there are an infinite number of sensibilities roaming around in the world out there, I don’t worry about being original or unique.  I know I’m original and unique, just as you are.  Everyone is if they stop to cultivate what they have to say in a given medium.  It’s a matter of just finally knowing the work well enough
whether it’s my own or someone else’sso that I can make the truest statement of it that respects it as the composer notated it, and also respects and honors what I have to bring to it in terms of my temperament, my metabolism, my way of seeing things at that moment in time.

BD:    With being a performer
not only a conductor but also a flutist who has recorded and performed all of these piecesare you, then, more tolerant of others who make interpretive ideas and even changes in your music?

HS:    I’m not tolerant at all of people who change the music, or who, to some degree, re-write what I’ve written.  I don’t think anyone has the right to do that without my giving permission.  On the other hand, I very often find that other performers, as they approach my music, see things in it, project things in it, that I hadn’t dreamt of.  They perceive certain passages or phrases with an inflection that is new to me, and yet, as often as not, I find them interesting and delightful.

BD:    Do you then encourage others to do that same kind of interpretation the next performance, or the next set of performances?

HS:    Not really, because it’s very hard to perpetuate something like that.  It’s very much the outgrowth of an individual sensibility, and I would rather encourage each individual who plays something of mine to just sink deeply into the music, to get to know the music well.  Nothing good, nothing worthwhile is given to one free.  You have to pay your dues.  There’s no free lunch, and in the field of fashioning a performance that is living and sparkling and convincing, the dues-paying has to do with living with the music, studying it, playing through it, getting to know it almost as a member of your family.  A lot of professional music-making is predicated on an assembly line idea of doing the most music in the shortest amount of time, and very often there are performances that are done with a minimum, and certainly inadequate, rehearsal.  To the degree that I’m involved in the musical world, where very often funding is not sufficient to pay for adequate rehearsal and so forth, I’m out there scrambling with everybody else to somehow make things work, even though I might like to have more time to rehearse.  On the other hand, I love doing solo flute music because I can take six months with a new piece, and live with it, perhaps memorize it, and go very deeply into it before I play it in public.  That’s the kind of luxury you don’t often have with chamber music, where things are on a tight budget, unless you’re working with a small group of friends with whom you can rehearse without worrying about the clock or time passing.  Otherwise you’re constrained to sometimes rush things through and just not get to the bottom of them.


BD:    Do these practical considerations ever enter into your idea when you’re writing the music and constructing the sounds on the page?

HS:    Yes and no.  They enter in all the time in the sense that I may be writing something and I’ll say, “Oh, my God!  That’s really hard.  How’s anybody going to do that?”  I tend to be a real Nervous Nellie about the stuff I write, and despite the considerable experience I have, I’m always being surprised by how performers really rise, and very often very quickly rise to the occasion of solving even very difficult technical problems.  Certainly, when you’re working with performers
— as I usually dowho have been playing a lot of contemporary music and who like doing it, who feel rewarded doing it, these people, through the backlog of experience that they amass become very skillful problem solvers.  When I’m writing I’m very often scratching my head and saying, “Boy, this is really hard.  I wonder if I should do this.”  But usually I do go ahead and do it, because I’m subsidized by the University of California.  They pay me to teach, but they also pay me to do research as a professor, and my research is writing music.  That is recognized, thank goodness, by the university as legitimate research, in the same way that a historian, doing a history of the Napoleonic Wars, is doing research, or a physicist doing research into the structure of matter is regarded as doing research.  Because of the fact that the university has faith in me and my ability to contribute something to the art, I feel I don’t have to work in terms of a very narrow range of expression that may be very easy to play, or that can be put together in a couple of hours at rehearsal.  Rather, I can explore some possibilities that I find really compelling, but at the same time might not always be extremely practical in terms of commercial application. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re writing the notes down on the page, are these things you have discovered, or are these things you have created?

sollberger HS:    That’s a tantalizing question.  In a certain sense, I’m not sure I’m creating anything.  I feel, very often, that what I’m doing reflects certain processes that exist and go on in the universe.  I, as part of the universe, participate in all of this, and as I perceive and process information and influences, I’m not so much creating something new as perhaps creating metaphors, almost poetic metaphors or musical processes, that mirror or suggest processes that go on, on another scale, maybe even a cosmic scale.  In one sense, I’m not very close to the 19th century composer, who was always concerned with I, I, I, me, me, me — the idea of self-expression.  I don’t think I’m expressing myself that much.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but I feel it’s possible for a composer to be a conduit, or a channel or channeler for processes that go on in the universe that are not particularly personal, that are rather super-, or supra-personal.  At times I have the feeling that I’m in touch with such processes, or that they’re working through me or working through my music, and this leads to a loss of ego.  A lot of the time we’re trapped in the persona we enact in the world.  I have this role of professor; I have this role of composer or performer; I have a role as a father; I have various roles that I enact, and at times it’s necessary to break down those walls and to see the stars that lie beyond them.  Many people live their lives totally engulfed in those roles.  For me, it’s necessary to climb up and look over the fence... or to try to, anyway.

BD:    Are you saying there’s an artificiality to the music?

HS:    I think all art is, in a certain sense, artificial in the sense that it is artifice.  It is created.  It comes from the imagination.  But I don’t think there’s anything shallow or superficial about artifice or the imagination.

BD:    We’re dancing around it, so let me ask the big question straight out.  What’s the purpose of music?

HS:    To tell us more about who we are.  I discovered things about myself in the course of both writing and performing music.  As we experience it through writing it, performing it, listening to it, it stretches our conception of who we are.  It opens new worlds to us, and helps us to understand the complexity and the beauty of the universe, and perhaps to see our place in it a little better.  I just read an interesting quote from Leibniz, the 17th century philosopher, who said that when we listen to music we’re really experiencing mathematics and counting without knowing that we’re counting.  I think he was onto this idea that music does tap into far more than a superficial level we’re aware of, because in our society, music, for the most part, is regarded as entertainment and as a pastime, as a way to kill time.  I think it is and can be much more.

BD:    Do you write your music so that it is more?

HS:    It is more to me, and if it happens to strike others in that way, I’m gratified if they get it in their own way, and it somehow helps them live their lives, or enriches their lives.

BD:    Do you expect the audience that comes to hear you conduct or compose to get it?

sollberger HS:    In their own way, which might be very different from my way, but I don’t know that I expect them to.  I hope that they will.  I hope that somehow the musical experience, whether it’s my music or someone else’s that I might be conducting, will trigger associations and insights, and will perhaps release energies that otherwise might not have been touched or affected.  Art is something
— you let it loose out in the world, and nobody can predict what its result or its effect will be.  It’s like an old joker; it’s a wild card.  It would be insane of me to prescribe or expect that something I write or create is going to have a particular effect on people.  It may have this effect on one person, and another effect on another.  In fact, somebody might hear a piece of mine and dislike it, or not be affected by it, and then five years later have an experience that causes the experience of that piece they had before to fall into focus.  I’ve certainly had that experience at certain points of my lifehearing music that I just didn’t get and didn’t like and didn’t want to hear, and years later hearing it again and saying, “Oh, yeah!  Of course.”  The music hadn’t changed; I had changed.  This is one of the compensations of getting older — that you have this chance to come back to certain experiences and perhaps to see that, in the meantime, you become better able to make sense of certain things.

BD:    You say the music hasn’t changed; you’ve changed.  If you re-interpret a piece as a performer or a conductor, does that make the music change, or are you just bringing more of the music out to the audience?

               [Vis-à-vis the program shown at left, see my Interviews with
                 David Holzman, Bruce Saylor, Nancy Laird Chance, and Christopher Rouse

HS:    I’m bringing difference aspects, different possibilities out to the audience.  But certainly there are some pieces that I’ve lived with over the years and performed at different times, and put out to pasture and then come back to after several years, and those readings reflect changes in my life and my own evolution, as well.

BD:    Is there ever a possibility of getting everything out of a piece of music?

HS:    No, I don’t think so.  You mean by one performer at one time?  You make certain choices in a given performance, and those preclude other possibilities.  In a piece that’s not very interesting, a piece that maybe doesn’t have very much to say, there might just be one way or two ways to play it, and that’s that.  But the really interesting pieces are the ones that offer whole vistas of possibilities, many different paths, many different approaches, many different ways through the piece, and by choosing one way, for that moment at least I’m precluding going other ways.  But there’s nothing to stop me a year later or five years later, from coming back and exploring some of those other byways and pathways that I may have neglected, or not have thought of, or have just chosen not to explore before.

BD:    As the conductor and director of ensembles, does this influence your choice of music, to use pieces that have more pathways to explore?

HS:    Generally, I tend to like music that can engage my imagination on the widest range of levels, and that tantalizingly offers me a wide range of possibilities.  So I would have to say yes to your question, but I’m not nearly so calculating in thinking about it.  I respond very intuitively to music, and after I’ve had a response I try to figure out why would I feel that way, or why did I like that, or why didn’t that speak to me.  I would like to like as much as I can.  I don’t like going around with a frown on my face, or my brow wrinkled, thinking, “I don’t get it.  I don’t like it.”  In fact, I don’t like people who do that all the time.  I’m looking for music to like, and I’m looking for ways in which to like music, and the more music that I can find triggering my imagination, stimulating me, making me want to perform it or stimulating me to think of new music of my own, that’s great.  That’s all for the better.

BD:    The myriad number of pieces that you conduct of other composers — does this influence the ideas that you have for your own compositions?

HS:    I think so, but I couldn’t point to any specific examples.  In fact, I find when I’m conducting a lot, it’s not particularly easy for me to compose, because composing involves a very deep, intense introspection, and it’s almost better done when you’re just able to engage and go deeply into your own ideas.  When I’m performing other people’s music, I’m obviously thinking about that and putting a lot of time in on it, and it’s just harder for me to engage my own ideas with the same degree of intensity that I would like to have.

BD:    If you could, would you split yourself in half so that you could be a hundred percent composer, and a hundred percent performer?

HS:    I sort of do that.  At certain times I take off and don’t do any performing.  One of the happiest times in recent years was four months I spent at the American Academy in Rome just as a composer.  I would work at composing every day, going deeply into the ideas that I was working with, and when I fried my brain after five or six hours and couldn’t think any more about music, I would go out and walk in Rome, which is the best way I know of to un-fry one’s brain and freshen it up, just because in Rome you see beautiful things.  Every corner you turn, there are things that human beings have worked on
whether it’s mosaic floors, or carvings, or statuary, paintings, buildings, and not just in museums, but out on the street.  If I could live that way six months of the year, I think I would do that.  The other six months I’d be happy rehearsing five or six hours a day, and getting deeply into other people’s music.  That would establish a very nice rhythm between what I need of stimulation from other people, and what I need in terms of just closing the door and going deep into my own thoughts.  Thank you for helping me think that thought.  Maybe I’ll change my life, and live that way from now on.  [Both laugh]

BD:    So you have, then, a good healthy reverence for the art of the past?

HS:    Yes, very much so, because I feel that music is like a huge river.  There is this continuity that goes back to the beginnings of recorded history and beyond, and certainly the idea of someone doing something significant today is to me inconceivable without the basis that the efforts of people in the past provide and furnish.

BD:    Without mentioning any names or any specific pieces, are there compositions and composers and trends today that can stand alongside of the masters of the previous generations?

HS:    Oh, of course.  There is no final absolute word on mastery.  We now think in terms of Bach or Mozart or Beethoven as the ultimate masters, but composers’ stock varies, and goes up and down.  In another century it may be that other composers will have taken the place of these composers.  For all I know, in a hundred years or a hundred and fifty years, Liszt will be seen as the ultimate master.  It’s a real historical myopia or short-sightedness to assume that these designations we assign to people
genius, or sub-genius, or mediocritynecessarily are good for all time.  They’re socially arrived at determinations that happen to color our thinking, but in the future these things may be turned around completely, and that being the case, why I’m willing to play the game.  It is kind of a game.  It’s like betting on horses, and certainly we have composers today who are up there with anyone you want to name from the past.
BD:    Is this to say that no matter how you bet, there’ll always be a pay-off someplace?

HS:    It seems to be that there will always be, at any time in history, people who somehow tap into the energies and the tensions of their time in ways that express that time while still transcending it.  I suppose that’s what the highest art does, whether it’s music or painting or sculpture or drama or whatever.  We all have our role to play in this.  I think of music as something like a cathedral, and for me composers like Mozart or Stravinsky or Varèse have contributed.  They’re like huge chunks of granite.  They are foundation stones on which the cathedral is built.  Others of us may not provide such impressive blocks of granite or marble or foundation stone, but we bring and we contribute what we can.  I’ve got my little stone or my bigger stone... I don’t know.  My daughter, who is in her middle twenties and is an aspiring writer, stumped me with a question.  At one point she said, “What if I did dedicate my life to art, and work at writing, and write all my life and write and write and write, and it turns out in the end that I’m mediocre?  I’ll have wasted my life.”  I sometimes think about this, too.  If I work and work at music, and the judgment of history is that Sollberger is a mediocrity, have I wasted my life?  I have to conclude no, I haven’t wasted my life, because as long as in the course of giving myself totally and fully to music, I have engaged the art to the fullest degree that I’m capable of.  If that means, in the judgment of some other people, what I’ve done is not as significant as X, Y or Z, that’s their judgment.  What matters to me, finally, is the quality of my experience.  Basically what I’m doing as an experience junkie is just trying to have the best, most vivid, exciting, colorful experiences I can have during my time on earth, and this is the best way I can do it
even if the historians of the future just regard me as a footnote.  Or maybe if I don’t even make footnote status, that’s okay as long as I have really lived this time fully and savored it.  So in that sense, I’m not worried about making the book, and maybe that’ll help me make the book in a classical way.

BD:    I think you can already assume that you are an entry in the book.

HS:    Yes.  I see my name in a book or two.  But again, history has a short memory.  Composers talk about things like this.

BD:    Are we putting an extra joker in the memory of history by setting down so many recordings?

HS:    It is almost in the way that economists talk about a free market, and how the producers of goods compete.  The public, by making its choices, decides which goods are going to survive in the market, and which firms and producers go out of business.  We have a market in the form of ideas as expressed in books or plays or pieces of music. 

BD:    But once you’ve made a record, theoretically it is there to be taken off the shelf and heard at any time.

HS:    That’s lovely, in a way.  I like that idea, because otherwise the only time you’d hear a piece of music that I wrote is when some people happen to get together and play it.  Maybe I stubbed my toe that day and I can’t go to the concert.  Or maybe there’s a lecture that I want to hear that night, and I want to hear the lecture more than that concert.  So if I have a record of music I want to hear, I can hear it at three in the morning, when the whole world is asleep.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re also a teacher of composition.  Are you pleased with what you see coming off the pages of your students?

HS:    That’s not so much the issue.  Sometimes I’m not, and as a teacher of composition, if I got my composer ego tied up with what my students were doing, I would probably end up putting too much pressure on them to become like me.  Some would, and some would fight me every step of the way, but in either case the results would not be as good as if I am able to function not so much as a model that they should imitate or follow, but more as an enabler for them to get in touch with what is finally going to be their truest and most sincere form of musical expression.  If I can sit with a student and discuss what he or she is doing, and get them to think about it in ways they hadn’t before, or maybe to a degree of depth that they hadn’t before, even if the result is wildly, diametrically opposed to what I do, or maybe something that doesn’t really turn me on, I’ll feel I have accomplished something.  I have helped them to become more fully what they are, just through introspection and thinking and experimenting and trying.  The job of a teacher of composition is very much this enabling role, to both help and enable, and also to get out of the way at certain times.  It’s tricky, maybe a trickier job than we sometimes think.  It’s not just straightforward communication of information and technique skills
although sometime it is that alsobut it involves getting to know another person in a very deep way.  That is sometimes very exhausting, and can sometimes be scary, in fact.  If you’re going to succeed at it, you have to have a willingness to do that, without any guarantee of the results, or that you will like the results.

sollberger BD:    Where do you think music is going these days?

HS:    Does it have to go anywhere?  My only responsibility to music is to create it as well as I can, and to support and propagate it as well as I can.

BD:    Isn’t the river moving along, though?

HS:    The river is moving, but there are a few logs and sloughs and so forth.  But it seems to me that perhaps more than in the past, it gets harder and harder to characterize any sort of musical mainstream.

BD:    Is that a good thing or a bad thing, or just a thing?

HS:    It’s bad from the point of view of critics and historians who would like to say, “The heart of the zeitgeist is this or that.”  For me, it’s been a challenge and a learning experience in that I have found myself opening up to compositional approaches, styles, and degrees of individuality that very often depart from what I happen to be interested in for my work at a given moment.  But more than when I was younger, I feel sympathy for a broader range of activity that I see some validity to, that I admire and respect.  I think when a composer is young, you’re struggling to stake out your territory.  You’re struggling to find one square inch of space that the world will let you stand in without squashing you.  As a result, sometimes you have to be very tough and very intransigent in insisting on having that space and letting nobody else get in.  Very often you reject everything else because it seems to be impinging on your space.  When you’re older, maybe the world has said, “Okay, we’ll give you your inch.  Maybe we’ll even give you two inches.”  You then find it possible not to have to fight so much, perhaps.  I’m just psychologizing maybe about my own experience and the slow, inexorable slide into and through middle age.  [Both laugh]

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

HS:    I suppose every composer would like to have more performances of his music.  At the same time, when I lament that certain pieces that I’m very fond of are not played that much, rather than blame other people, I notice two things about myself and my music.  One is it’s fairly difficult to play, and in that sense it rather limits or self-selects who will perform it.  The other thing is that like any other aspect of life in America, the propagation of music through performance is very much tied to promotion and getting the music out there
getting it advertised, getting it around to peopleand I’m the worst promoter of my own music in the world.  I just don’t send tapes or scores around, even though I know that many people would be sympathetic to knowing what I’m doing.  It’s one of my perennial New Year’s resolutionsthis year I’m going to be better at just letting the world know about my music, so that maybe more people will play it and listen to it.

BD:    Is composing fun?

HS:    One has got to be a masochist!  [Both laugh]  No, when it’s going well, it’s fun.  When you had a good day in the mine down there and you come out and feel you’ve excavated a few pounds of good ore, then it’s very satisfying.  But sometimes you come out and you feel you’ve just been flopping around, and then you go for a walk and hope tomorrow will be better.  When I compose well, it’s more satisfying to me than anything else in the whole world.  So that’s what keeps me at it, looking for those golden threads in the ore.

BD:    I hope you keep successfully mining all kinds of interesting ideas.

HS:    Thank you very much.  I very much need your good wishes. I know they will help me.

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago.  I appreciate it very much.

HS:    My pleasure.

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© 1994 Bruce Duffie

Photos are from, and elsewhere on the internet.

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 21, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1998, and on WNUR in 2006 and 2011.  A copy of the unedited audio was given to the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.

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.