Composer / Conductor  David  Stock

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Composer and conductor David Stock, born in Pittsburgh June 3, 1939, was known for his stylistically modern yet accessible music. He died on November 2nd, 2015. His large catalog of compositions includes six symphonies, ten string quartets, a dozen concerti for mixed instruments, and numerous pieces for voice and chamber orchestra. He also produced a variety of works for theater, film, and television. Stock’s reputation as a composer and conductor earned him many awards, commissions, and guest appearances at prestigious institutions around the world.

“David Stock poured his heart into music and used it to build community,” said Milken Archive of Jewish Music founder Lowell Milken. “Although he traveled the world, he always remained part of his hometown’s musical life. He will be missed."

He earned his B.F.A. and M.F.A from the Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie Mellon University), where he studied trumpet and composition with Nikolai Lopatnikoff and Alexei Haieff. He earned a second master’s degree studying with Arthur Berger at Brandeis University and matriculated at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and the Berkshire Music Center.     

Stock was committed to the artistic growth of Pittsburgh. He was Professor Emeritus at Duquesne University, where he conducted the Duquesne Contemporary Ensemble. He also taught on the faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music, the New England Conservatory, Antioch College, and the University of Pittsburgh. He was conductor laureate of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which he helped found in 1976, and composer in residence at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Symphony. In 1992, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust honored Stock with its Creative Achievement Award for “outstanding established artist.”

Dedicated to promoting the music of contemporary American composers and cultivating new audiences for modern concert music, Stock was chairman of the Pittsburgh Alliance of Composers, directed the WQED-FM New Music Project, hosted its weekly radio series “Da Capo,” and served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Stock’s music has been performed throughout the United States and Europe, as well as in Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, China, Uzbekistan, and Korea. Among his most important compositions are Kickoff (1990), which was premiered by the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur during its 150th anniversary season, and his Violin  Concerto (1995), which received its premiere as part of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s 100th anniversary celebration. Other significant works include Inner Space (1973) and A Joyful Noise (1983) for symphony orchestra; American Accents (1983) and Available Light (1995) for chamber orchestra; and Dreamwinds (1975), Keep the Change (1981), Parallel Worlds (1984), and Sulla spiaggia (1985) for mixed chamber ensemble. He has also composed music for youth orchestras, including Zohar (1978), which draws from Jewish mysticism, and Triflumena (1978). 

During the 1980s and 90s, Stock began writing more work with explicitly Jewish content. The Milken Archive/Naxos release David Stock (2006) includes A Little Miracle (1997), a dramatic cantata for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra on Holocaust themes; Yizkor (1999), a single-movement orchestral reflection on the Jewish memorial service; and Tekiah (1987), a three-movement work for trumpet and chamber orchestra that refers to the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Stock also received commissions from Music of Remembrance, where he served on the advisory board, for A Vanished World (2000), named after the Roman Vishniac book and conceived as an aural representation of pre-war Eastern European Jewry; and for Mayn Shvester Khaye (2008), his arrangement of a song by Israeli singer Chava Alberstein. Other works of Jewish character include his Third Symphony, Tikkun Olam (1999), commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project; his Cello Concerto (2001), of which the last movement is styled on cantorial melodies; and his Sixth Symphony (2013/2014), which incorporates several songs from the Jewish liturgy, including “Sh’ma Yisrael.”


See my interview with Gerard Schwarz

He recorded on CRI, Innova, Northeastern, MMC, Ocean, and Ambassador, among others. Notable recordings with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble include David Stock: Chamber Works (originally released in 1984 on CRI), which features two jazz-oriented compositions, Triple Play and Scat, as well as The Philosopher’s Stone; and Taking Stock (1994, Northeastern), which presents the multi-movement works The Particle Zoo and Tekiah. His television credits include the theme music for the PBS series Kennedy Center Tonight.

Reviews of Stock’s work often pinpointed his unabashed 20th-century musical approach that prized expression above all else and avoided some of the trappings of much contemporary music. In a 2010 review of the premiere performance of Stock’s Blast!, Seattle Times critic Bernard Jacobson noted that Stock “commands a style where apparent simplicity coexists with a high degree of technical sophistication,” while a 2006 review of the Milken Archive/Naxos CD David Stock for the American Record Guide wrote that “Stock has the clarity (but not the austerity) of a latter day minimalist.” Scott Winship of the website New Music Box described a performance of Available Light as “an almost schizophrenic journey through Stravinsky-esque rhythms and orchestrations . . . with sudden shifts to Bernstein harmonizations and restless perpetual motion reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoons.” Another writer called Stock’s Violin Concerto “one of American music’s best kept secrets.”

Stock received a Guggenheim Fellowship, several fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and grants and commissions from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust, the Paderewski Fund for Composers, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, the Barlow Endowment, Boston Musica Viva, the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Richard Stoltzman, Duquesne University, and the Erie Philharmonic, among others. 

His international guest conducting appearances included Australia’s Seymour Group, Poland’s Capella Cracoviensis and Silesian Philharmonic, Mexico’s Foro Internacional de Musica Nueva, and China’s Eclipse. In the U.S., he appeared with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, Syracuse Society for New Music, Minnesota Composers Forum, American Dance Festival, Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh, New England Conservatory Contemporary Ensemble, Chautauqua Symphony, American Wind Symphony, and the Cleveland Chamber Symphony.

--  Biography from his official website  
--  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In June of 1988, the convention of the American Symphony Orchestra League was held in Chicago, and on one of the programs, the Illinois Chamber Orchestra played American Accents by David Stock.  The composer attended, and while he was here we arranged to have an interview.  Portions were aired on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago the following year to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, and again 1994 and 1999.

Now, in 2019, to mark what would have been his eightieth birthday, the entire conversation has been transcribed and is presented on this webpage.

Stock was enthusiastic about music of all kinds, and this was felt in our time together.

Bruce Duffie:   We were talking about the fact that your music from a few years ago is very different from your music of today.  Why is that?

David Stock:   For a long time, my music was very consistently chromatic
as many people’s music was.  If you drew any reasonably-sized circle on the page, you would find all of the twelve tones.  It doesn’t mean that it was always twelve-toned music; it means that basically there was a high rate of turnover of the notes.  These days, if you drew the same-sized circle, you would be more likely to find only seven or eight notes.  This is true for many of my colleagues as well.  This is, at least in part, because many of us have been trying to find some way to write music that is us, that is really our true selves, and at the same time reaching out to a wider audience.  We are trying to meet the audience more half-way.

BD:   So it is actually coming from you, and you’re not just grabbing onto the latest fad?

DS:   I don’t think I am.  It’s hard always to tell one’s motivations.  I heard things that were different from what I was hearing before, and I say I heard them inside me.  Certainly, one has influences, and there’s no harm in being influenced by things that are literally of one’s own time
whether it’s last year, or two years agoif it’s good music.  What difference does it make?

stock BD:   If you write something now, are you then disowning the piece that you wrote ten years ago, twenty years ago, or thirty years ago?

DS:   Absolutely not, no.  I don’t disown that music.  Quite frankly, some of it was pretty good, especially my orchestral work of the period.  I like that very much.  It’s just that it’s different now, that’s all.

BD:   You get a number of commissions.  How do you decide if you’ll accept the commission, or postpone it, or even decline it?

DS:   [Mildly shocked]  Decline a commission???  Wash your mouth out with soap!!!  [Both laugh]  I’m a working composer, and I’m not quite in the echelon where I can decline commissions very easily.  Now I suppose there are certain things...  For instance, I don’t think I am ever going to do an opera.

BD:   Why not?

DS:   Because opera’s a very strange beast.  First of all, you’ve got all those singers, and they have to have something to sing.  If they’re not singing, then it’s not opera.

BD:   Is it a dying beast?

DS:   Well, opera per se is not only dying, but opera
whatever that isis dead.  However, something else these days, which gets called Music Theatre, is very much alive.  It might include opera, but we have to figure out what it is we mean by some of these things.  But, in any case, I don’t think that world is for memuch to my regret perhapsand also a piano concerto.  In fact, I had a conversation with somebody today that a piano concerto is one thing I would really have to be pushed into doing.  But, if some super top-notched pianist came along and said he wants to commission me to write a work with some fine orchestra, and I know it’s going to get twenty performances, I’ll find a way to do it.

BD:   What if you’re going to get only two or three performances?

DS:   No, not two or three.  That is not enough for me to learn to write for the piano the right way... whatever that means.

BD:   What is the right way to write music in general?

DS:   The right way???  [With a slightly mocking tone]  Well, you sit down and you start at the beginning and you go through to the end...  [Laughs]  I don’t know.  There isn’t any right way.  That’s one of the big fallacies.  ‘There’s the right way.’  ‘There’s the Classic tradition.’  ‘This is the established standard.’  It
s all nonsense.

BD:   So there are a lot of right ways?

DS:   Of course, there are a lot of right ways, and it’s not just because we’re in a pluralistic time, which we definitely are.  There are a lot of composers doing different things, and doing them very well.  No, I don’t think there’s a
right way.  That’s something the Music Appreesh racket [Music Appreciation courses in schools at various levels] falsely ground into people.  In fact, it’s a false view of music history, even of the past.  People always pay lip service to the Wagner-Hanslick battle, and all that kind of stuff, but it goes back far beyond that.  There are always different ways to do things; it’s just that there are more different ways.

BD:   Are there too many different ways?

DS:   How can there be too many, especially if they’re all good.  They’re not all equally good, but if people can find good ways to do the music that are very different from the other, that sounds wonderful.

BD:   Then let’s cut through to the heart of the question.  What makes a piece of music good?  What are some of the things that contribute to good music?

DS:   Oh, boy!  That is the hardest question of all.  There’s something that happens, and it’s very difficult to describe.  There’s a certain inner coherence; there’s a certain freshness; there’s a certain quality
not quality in the sense of good or bad, but quality in the sense of what one of my teachers used to call the salient qualities of workwhere there’s something you can grab.  It’s that piece, or it’s that composer, and here he or she may never do as well again, but there’s something about that piece.  Do you see what I mean?  There’s something tangible that either you remember, or you can focus on.  In pop terms, there’s a hook.  That’s at the curtest level, but there’s just something about the piece that’s special.  That’s good music.

BD:   Do you try to write that into your scores?

DS:   I don’t think you can try to write it.  Either it’s there or it’s not there.  If you try to write a thing and you’re doing popular music, you’re really writing to formula.  Several years ago, one of my friends who came out of the avant-garde
that dreaded termsaid it best.  He said, “We don’t have to worry anymore about being original, about being different, any of these things.  All that we have to do is be good.  For him to say that meant something to me on a very deep level.  It was, in a sense, vindication of where I had come from.

BD:   Who is it that decides whether the music is good
is it the composer, the performer, the public, the critics?

DS:   Many of those.  Again, this is very complicated in our time.  First of all, we don’t really have any music criticism per se.  There practically is no such thing as serious music criticism today.  As recently as forty years ago, there were people who were very serious music critics who had the time and space in their newspapers or magazines to really talk seriously about music.  That barely exists today, even though there are people who are capable of doing it.  Most of them don’t have the platform from which to do it, so it’s not really their fault.  It’s a much more complex problem than that.  We are all part of it
the audience is part of it, and the composers themselves are part of it.  In the present day, we composers have had to be the music critics, we’ve had to be the music theorists, we’ve had to be the music historians.  We’ve got to do everything!  We’ve often had to be the people who’ve put on the concerts, and who organize the group.  We’ve had our share of the burden thrown double what it should be, perhaps.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Speaking of doing so many things, you’re also the Music Director of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.

stock DS:   Correct.

BD:   How do you divide your time between performing and composing?

DS:   During the season it’s very difficult to get in as much composing time and energy as I really need.  Sometimes I feel like Mahler must have felt... not as good, sadly, but certainly akin in the sense that there are times when I feel like a summer composer.  I took a year off, in fact, from the Ensemble just to concentrate on composing because it was absolutely necessary.  I did no conducting whatsoever for eleven months.  As much as I like to conduct, strangely enough I didn’t miss it at all for those eleven months.  So it is difficult to achieve a proper balance between the two, because conducting, for me, is not just a question of conducting.  There’s a lot of administrative stuff that goes with it
looking at scores, listening to tapes, planning programs, raising money, being a voice in the community...  It’s endless.

BD:   Are you a better composer because you are also a conductor?

DS:   Oh, my goodness... you really ask hard questions!  I don’t know if
better is the right word.  In some sense I’m a more practical composer.  I know what is doable in the rehearsal time that people have in things like that.  I’m always trying to push it, but there are certain things that were in some of my earlier works which I found more practical ways to do.  Without in any way watering them down, I’ve just found better ways to do the same kind of things, so that’s important.  I know how important it is to have beautiful parts where the page turns work, that it’s legible, that there aren’t foolish meter changes, that the meter changes really are an integral part of the music...  I could go on and on with the all the practical things, but better?  No.  Different?  The experience of conducting all this stuff has certainly changed me.  For one thing, of course, my relation to the audience.

BD:   Is your relationship different when you’re sitting out there listening to one of your pieces, rather than being up there conducting somebody else’s piece?

DS:   In some ways it’s very different.

BD:   How so?

DS:   First of all, as a listener to my own work it’s very difficult to distance myself.  I get very nervous when someone else is doing the premiere of one of my works.  I don’t get nervous when I’m conducting.

BD:   Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

DS:   I don’t think so.  I hope not.  I’m one of better ones, but I’ve had very good luck with people doing my music.  I’ve had wonderful conductors to work with.  I hesitate even to give a list because I’m afraid I’d leave somebody out - but Gunther Schuller, Zdenek Macal, Gerard Schwarz, and Kenneth Kiesler just today, as a matter of fact.  So there I really have no complaints.

BD:   Let me ask turn the question around.  Are you a better conductor because you are also a composer?

DS:   Oh, well that’s an easy question, and the question is absolutely.  It’s very, very artificial that anyone should be a conductor who has not really had the experience of composing.  It’s a false, modern invention, and in a certain way it started with Toscanini.  He was really the first important conductor who was not himself a composer.  At least he was someone who would be strongly identified with the music of his own time, but that’s where some of our troubles started.

BD:   The fact that he was a cellist was of no help?

DS:   It not of negligible help, but it’s very different.  It’s a very different kind of help, and many of the young people today who want to pursue conducting careers are channeled in a very artificial direction, which is not a musical direction.  It’s a career direction, and being a composer is crucial to bringing to life other people’s music.  In fact, it’s not just conductors, it’s performers as well.  It’s no accident that the Juilliard String Quartet is one of the foremost string quartets in the world.  Some of them actually compose, and the rest certainly have had wonderful experience in music of our own time.  What that means is that they bring to Beethoven, or Ravel, or whomever, is very different than the quartets that don’t do what they do, and haven’t lived the lives they’ve led.

BD:   So, you’re very much involved in the music of our time
not just your own, but in others?

DS:   I would say in some ways I’m too much involved with others!  [laughs]  I had a lot of help from a lot of people when my studies and my career were developing.  These were people of real stature whom I can never pay back.  So, what can I do for Gunther Schuller?

BD:   Play some of his music!

DS:   Yes, but there are plenty of people who play his music.  What can I do for Arthur Berger, who was one of my teachers at Brandeis and at Tanglewood?  What can I do for my late teacher, Nicolai Lapatnikoff?  For them I can help perpetuate their music a little differently, but still, it’s not the same thing.  What I can really do is help the next generation by doing some of the things that were done to me.  So, I’ve worked very hard to seek out the young composers, and try to help them the best I can by playing their music, doing it the best we can, giving it the widest exposure we can, playing it again and giving repeat performances, and telling other groups about it.  I have worked very hard at this because it’s crucial, and in many cases it has helped those composers immeasurably.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You have this huge mountain of scores at home.  How do you decide which ones you’ll play, and which ones you’ll unfortunately not be able to play?

stock DS:   There, it’s really sort of guess work in a certain sense.  If the piece has not been played, and there’s no tape, then it takes a great deal of study to really know what’s inside a piece... and frankly there’s no way to do it.  There just isn’t.  I can’t do it.  I don’t have the time, and neither does anyone else in this world, sadly.  In many cases one can look at something and think this really is good.  We can tell that’s going to do it.  But there are other pieces where one can’t tell, and frankly, in some cases, it’s guess work.  We think this is going to be good, and we hope it will be, and we’ll give it our all.  Or we might decide we don’t think this is for us.

BD:   There must be something that you see, or something that you look for to give an idea.

DS:   It
s the salient qualities.  That’s the first thing.  Is this just a rehash of somebody else’s piece?  Whether that somebody is Steve Reich or Charles Wuorinen, or whomever, I don’t care.  Webern or Schoenberg are the old battles.  I want to see something that’s different, and not in the sense of being weirder or stranger, but just something that has some quality of freshness.  Once, we were judging a competition and there was a score that was pretty good, but it had this little tune going through it, and this was at a time before tunes were coming back.  I must say that none of us were, at that time, what I would call tune composers, and we were struck by the fact that this tune it was something you could hang onto.  For many of the people on that jury, it was not their kind of music, but there was something that they could grab.  A lot of the stuff I see is really not up to professional standard.  You take one look at the score, and you know this is just not going to do it.  But the thing is that we do live at a time when the young people have many more opportunities than they did before.  There are too many of them wanting to take advantage of the opportunities, but still, there are more opportunities for young composers today than there ever has been in the history of the United States of America.  So, it means that if they miss out on us, hopefully somebody else will grab them.

BD:   What advice do you have for these young composers coming along?

DS:   The first thing is to write the best music they possibly can.  That’s the most important thing.  When all is said and done, the rest is nonsense.  Even performing, and P.R., and all the things we do are really not of importance on a certain level as composers.  It’s important in other ways, also.  It’s important as musical citizens, but writing the best music one can is the first thing.  The second thing is presenting it to people in a professional manner, so that it looks at least reasonably correct.  It’s not loose pages that are going to fall apart when you’re looking at them.  These almost sound like silly things, but they’re really true.  The next thing is a sense of some kind of practicality.  If a young composer comes in with a piece for twenty-three instruments, and wants our group to play it, I have to say that I’m sorry, it costs us too much money to do that.

BD:   Your group is how many?

DS:   We run up to fifteen or sixteen players.  It
s your traditional large new-music ensemble, with one on a part.  There are traditional groupings by now, with more or less fourteen, fifteen, sixteen players.  There’s also a smaller group of six, which is now as standard as a string quartet.  It started with Schoenberg, with the Pierrot Lunaire group of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and then today everyone has added percussion.  So, those six players are absolutely as standard as a woodwind quintet, or a string quartet, and composers know that there are people who will play that repertoire.

BD:   So it’s Maxwell Davies
s Pierrot Players?

DS:   Absolutely!  Therefore, if someone writes a piece that has those six players, they’re going to have a lot more opportunity to have that work played than if they write a piece for three trumpets and glockenspiel.  On the other hand, if somebody is hearing music that absolutely has got to be three trumpets and glockenspiel, then they must write it, but they will have to understand that they’ll have to take the consequences.

BD:   They’ll have to find a group?

DS:   They’ll have to find a group that’s got those instruments, or start their own group with three trumpets and glockenspiel.

BD:   Are you basically pleased with much of the music that you see coming across your desk every day by other composers?

DS:   Oh boy, that’s a toughie.  There’s always some good things out there.  I always ask my colleagues what they have heard this year that was good.  What impressed them?  Who’s got something interesting?  Yes, today especially there’s enough stuff that’s coming out that is good.  It’s a brighter picture than it was ten or fifteen years ago.  The younger composers, in the main, are better trained across the board, and are trying to do things that are not just what the preceding generation did.  Sometimes they’re going back a couple of generations.  We’re finding some of that in the mix.  I like eclecticism, first of all.  I like a heady mix of things in any composer and in any period, so I’m pleased, yes.

BD:   Where’s music going today?

DS:   It’s going into the future!  [Both laugh]  How’s that for dodging the question?  Part of our problem is we always ask questions like that, which are, in a sense, really irrelevant.  This is no insult to you, because we all ask them.  It’s going wherever composers take it, and we don’t know where that is.  It’s conceivable that we’re all wrong, and this is just as much a common-practice period as Bach, Mozart, Haydn.  It could be, but it’s just that we’re too close to it so we don’t see it.  All the other stuff is going to fall away, and perhaps when I’m old and tired, and we’re looking back fondly on the good old days of the Twentieth Century, we’ll find there was something absolutely common that tied all these things together that we just overlooked.  I doubt it, and I have my own opinion, but it is conceivable.

stock BD:   [Pressing the point]  What is your opinion?

DS:   My opinion is that it’s not the case, that there are a lot of things that have happened.  I feel that the first half of the Twentieth Century
the part we can judge with some accuracyis absolutely one of the great periods in the history of music.  That’s the years 1900 to 1950.  Set aside all questions of style, and wars, and aesthetics, and all that, this is one of the great periods in the history of music.  Don’t forget, it includes not only Stravinsky, and Ives, and Schoenberg, and all those people, but it includes Puccini, the most mature works of Mahler, Janáček, and works of Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland.  It’s a great period in the history of music.

BD:   Debussy and Ravel?

DS:   Yes!  We think of the Twentieth Century as some weird monolith.

BD:   Do you include works of Gershwin, and Irving Berlin?

DS:   Absolutely, and Cole Porter.  Why not?  Gershwin is one of our greatest American composers.  There’s no two ways about it.  Porgy and Bess is, in my opinion, the great American opera, and the second best one is a long way back behind it.  There are some good ones other than that, but Porgy and Bess is the greatest American opera.

BD:   Let’s keep going one more step.  Do you include Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and the Swing era, too?

DS:   Well, not on the same level.  But don’t forget, the first half of the Twentieth Century also includes Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington.

BD:   Okay, but at some point the whole track gets derailed.

DS:   Why do you say that?

BD:   Then, let me turn it into a question.  At some point does the track get derailed?

DS:   It gets more complicated.  I don’t think it gets derailed, and in the last ten or fifteen years we’ve seen this new flowering of really good stuff again.  It’s just that there was a lot of junk for many years.  A lot of people really feel that whole post-War period was totally negative, and I don’t think it’s the case.

BD:   It was just a dip?

DS:   I’m not even sure it was a dip.  I think it was just different.  Perhaps it was something we all had to go through, and some good pieces came out of it.  We can’t forget that.  There were also some very different pieces.  I was teaching a course this year on Twentieth Century music
actually Nineteenth and Twentieth Century music, all crammed in the same semester.  [Both laugh]  What insanity!  I had to go back and listen to Stockhausen’s Gruppen again.  It’s a really good piece from the mid 50s.  Forget about the ideology, forget all the fighting, and all that stuff.  It’s still a good piece.  I listened to Philomel of Milton Babbitt again, which is from the mid-60s.  This is still a good piece.  Twenty or thirty years have gone by, and if these pieces have stood the test of time, even at that distance, there’s something there.  Le Marteau sans Maître of Pierre Boulez still sounds like a good piece.  We could go on and on, and list these pieces but it doesn’t matter.  The fact is that what happened was that the composer did become, in many cases, too alienated from the audience, and vice versa.  We’re correcting that now, but maybe it was necessary.  The kind of ‘ivory towerism’ might have been a phase that we all had to go though.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Lets cut right to the heart of the matter.  What is the purpose of music in society?

DS:   [After feigning a look of amused shock]  First of all, music does lots of things.  It depends which music.  Music is to give pleasure of many kinds, including intellectual pleasure.  That’s part of it.  People say music is to please people, as though that was just some low-level function.  Music can please on many levels.  The great classical masters, such as Bach and Mozart, really wanted their music to function in a way that the ordinary music lover would like it, and that people who knew more would get something deeper and richer out of it.  It would be on many levels, and for a long time, people concentrated on just one of those levels.  For example, consider the very fact that Gershwin songs seem just as fresh and wonderful today as they did fifty years ago, and that people can get great pleasure out of them.  But there’s something more.  It’s not just that they’re really good.  There’s something more there which is indefinable.  That is why they have stuck around.  So, I would say, yes, pleasure s and spiritual riches of many kinds because music is something on a spiritual dimension as well.

BD:   Then, where’s the balance then between the pleasures and the spiritual riches?

stock DS:   They’re the same thing!  Spiritual riches are pleasures, too.  Since you asked a philosophical question, I have to try give a philosophical answer the best I can, since I’m not a philosopher.  The soul needs nourishment, and that doesn’t have to be painful.  Just its being watered like a plant is pleasurable.  If it’s on an intellectual level, fine.  If it’s on a less lofty plain, fine, but it needs that watering, and one of the problems with our musical society today is that for many people it’s spiritually impoverished.  People listen to one kind of music, a very narrow kind.  Whether they’re sixteen or fifty, they know what they like, and it’s not an issue.  I don’t think of classical music
whatever that meansversus popular music, its narrowness restricting it to a very narrow band.  If on listened to the radio in the 1930s and 1940s, you might hear a swing band concert, some country, yodeling, and a symphony orchestra all on the same station.  But now, because of marketing, and the money, and all this stuff, it’s all segregated one from the other.  So, many of the young people have never heard any of what I would call real music.  It doesn’t matter what you define as real music.  They’ve only ever heard manufactured music, which really is spiritually not nourishing.

BD:   It used to be broadcasting, but now we call it narrowcasting.

DS:   Yes, narrowcasting is very serious.

BD:   Just playing Devil’s advocate for a moment, is there any danger that the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble is narrowcasting its own kind of music?

DS:   Oh, absolutely!  There’s no question we’re doing that.  But that’s all the more reason we need to do everything we can to reach out.  It’s very hard.  We’re a small organization with very limited resources, and we can’t fight the whole society.  So, indeed, we are part of this just the way the top-forty stations are.  But if we didn’t do it, no one else would.

BD:   Do you find that you have any crossover of the audience between yourself and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

DS:   Very little, sadly.  This is one of the tragedies.

BD:   You should buy their mailing list.

DS:   What good would it do?

BD:   Start pecking away...

DS:   But how could we convince them that they might like some of what we do?  One of my great frustrations is that people that will come to hear one of my pieces at the Pittsburgh Symphony, and like it, and make a point of telling me they like it, won’t make the same effort to hear one of my pieces
or someone else’s piecewith my own Ensemble, because they just assume they won’t like that stuff.  When you remind them they liked it at the Symphony, they say, Well, yeah, I guess I did, didn’t I? and then that’s the end of the conversation.  So one of our marketing ideas is to identify people who really can be convinced that they should come and hear what we do.

BD:   Is the music of David Stock for everyone?

DS:   No, of course not!  The music of Beethoven isn’t for everyone.  The music of Gershwin isn’t for everyone.  Nothing’s for everyone.

BD:   Then, for whom do you write?

DS:   I write for anyone who will listen.  Why not?  I don’t think that the limitations of the audience that have been imposed upon us by society are the only ones possible.  I would like very much that anybody who really likes music would like my music, but obviously that’s not possible.  Most people will never hear it.  Not only that, they will decide in advance they weren’t going to like it because it is part of this mysterious other thing.  Again, one could plug in anyone.  Take Brahms.  If you walked up to the average teenager and started talking about Brahms, they’d think you’re crazy, but the fact is that they’ve not had the choice, really.  The deck has been stacked against anything outside of this very narrow area, and that’s not such a good thing.  A friend of mine came up with a proposal the other day, that maybe what we should do is teach only the current popular music in a very academic fashion in the schools for the next ten years.  We would have seminars that carefully use the Schenker analysis of Bon Jovi, or Devo, or somebody, or whoever.

Schenkerian analysis is a method of analyzing tonal music, based on the theories of Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935). The goal is to demonstrate the organic coherence of the work by showing how it relates to an abstract deep structure, the Ursatz. This primal structure is roughly the same for any tonal work, but a Schenkerian analysis shows how, in an individual case, that structure develops into a unique work at the "foreground", the level of the score itself. A key theoretical concept is that of "tonal space". The intervals between the notes of the tonic triad in the background form a tonal space that is filled with passing and neighbor notes, producing new triads and new tonal spaces, open for further elaborations until the surface of the work (the score) is reached.

The analysis uses a specialized symbolic form of musical notation. Although Schenker himself usually presents his analyses in the generative direction, starting from the fundamental structure (Ursatz) to reach the score and showing how the work is somehow generated from the Ursatz, the practice of Schenkerian analysis more often is reductive, starting from the score and showing how it can be reduced to its fundamental structure. The graph of the Ursatz is arrhythmic, as is a strict-counterpoint cantus firmus exercise. Even at intermediate levels of the reduction, rhythmic signs (open and closed noteheads, beams and flags) show not rhythm but the hierarchical relationships between the pitch-events.

Schenkerian analysis is an abstract, complex and difficult method, not always clearly expressed by Schenker himself, nor always clearly understood. It mainly aims at showing the internal coherence of the work, a coherence that ultimately resides in its being tonal. In some respects, a Schenkerian analysis can reflect the perceptions and intuitions of the analyst.


Schenker was convinced of the superiority of music of the common practice period (especially the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin, and Johannes Brahms). This led him to seek the key to an understanding of music in the traditional discipline of counterpoint, the type of theory the Masters themselves had studied. Schenker's project was to show that free composition (freier Satz) was an elaboration, a "prolongation", of strict composition (strenger Satz), by which he meant species counterpoint, particularly two-voice counterpoint. He did this by developing a theory of hierarchically organized levels of elaboration (Auskomponierung), called prolongational levels, voice–leading levels (Stimmführungsschichten), or transformations (Verwandlungen), the idea being that each of the successive levels represents a new freedom taken with respect to the rules of strict composition.

Because the first principle of the elaboration is the filling in of the tonal space by passing notes, an essential goal of the analysis is to show linear connections between notes which, filling a single triad at a given level, remain closely related to each other but which, at subsequent levels, may become separated by many measures or many pages as new triads are embedded in the first one. The analyst is expected to develop a "distance hearing" (Fernhören), a "structural hearing".

BD:   So they would get sick of it?

DS:   Yes, absolutely.  Turn them off the same way they run from Shakespeare.  I’m not sure... I haven’t thought this one through, yet.  But the point is that of most Symphony audiences, I would be very surprised if at least some of them didn’t like what I and many of my colleagues do, and it has nothing to do with me.  Joseph Schwantner, for example, is a composer that people will listen to.  That doesn’t mean he’s better or worse than people who write more thorny music, or something that is more difficult to listen to, but it certainly means that there’s at least some.  More and more, there are composers that general audiences really will like, but, of course, the Symphony audiences are a minute part of the American listening public.  It’s five per cent at best, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  [Demurs a bit]  Maybe it does have to be that way, and again it’s another phase that we’re going though.  It’s conceivable that the symphony orchestra as an institution is obsolete.  Many people think so.  I hope not, as I’m an orchestral composer.  On the other hand, I have an ensemble, and the I reason I have an ensemble is because nobody else is doing what we do.  There’s now this literature that we all trail around, one to the other.  The piece is played in Pittsburgh one year, and in New York the next, and then San Francisco the next week.

stock BD:   Is that incestuous?

DS:   Of course it’s not, it’s just the opposite.  It should be happening all the time with the orchestras, as well.  In fact, they’re slowly finding out that there are new pieces which are successful with their audiences, and unfortunately, they immediately decide they will only play pieces which they know are going to be successful with the audiences, and they will never take any chances.  The very fact that my music is now more approachable makes me all the more aware of the fact that there are composers who are very good who are less approachable than I, and I don’t want to see them get nailed just because they happen to be of a different aesthetic stripe.  That’s not right, but, of course, we all know the reality, that this is a big business now, and it is not our wing of it.  The New Music business per se is a small business, but the Classical Music Industry is a fairly large business, even though it’s only five per cent.  It’s not big like the Pop business, and maybe that’s part of the problem.  It is an industry, and has its own internal industrial laws.

BD:   Do you ever wish that your Ensemble, or your music, would get the same kind of riotous audiences that the Beatles got in the

DS:   No, I don’t think that’s very likely.  There are some people in the field that are capable of that happening.  Philip Glass certainly has rapturous listeners, but no, I’m not like that, personally.  I don’t have to be.  I do what I do, and I do it the best I can, and it makes me very happy when people like it.  I wish there were more of them who liked it.  I wish more of them had the opportunity even to decide.  That’s the first thing.  They at least have to have the chance to decide whether they like it by hearing it, and if it gets played, then they at least will have had the opportunity.  If it gets played and they hear it a couple of times, and they say they hate it, fine and dandy.  At least it was out there.  If it’s a one-shot, and it’s over and out, that’s not a decision.  Even with pop music, people don’t just decide if they love that piece or that song.  It’s done ad nauseam, so again, the deck is stacked.  People who say they like Beethoven because they have heard the Fifth Symphony fifty times need to think about the first time they heard it.

BD:   Aren’t we getting generations of people who, the first time they hear it, have been told it is a great work, and they’re going to like it because it is a great work?

DS:   Yes, but that’s part of it.  That’s what I’m saying about the whole brainwashing thing
it also turns many people off.  By now, it’s just as likely to send a signal to someone that he will not like it because his teacher or his father said he should.  The messages that are sent out there are very complex, but there’s plenty of hope, especially with the young people.

BD:   So, you are optimistic?

DS:   Oh, I’m a great optimist, absolutely!  I can’t afford not to be.  If one isn’t optimistic, one would just give up doing what I do, even if you’d say that I’m writing music nobody’s going to like, or nobody’s going to play.  To do a Contemporary Music ensemble, especially in an allegedly conservative, and not very large city like Pittsburgh, is an act of faith.  It’s saying that this is an important enough activity to put my blood and sweat into.  Even if the audience isn’t large, it’s worth doing.

BD:   What would you do if all of a sudden you had the same audience that goes to the Steelers or the Penguins [professional football and ice hockey teams in Pittsburgh]?

DS:   I’d be stunned!  [Laughs]  I don’t think it’s all that likely, and I wouldn’t change anything to do that.  I don’t think the Pittsburgh Symphony should change for that, either.  Part of the reason is that art, on some level, really is elitist.  It’s elite, not of social snobbery, but of people who are making some discriminations.  It can be learned.  It’s not inborn.  You can be an elitist if you’re poor, you can be an elitist if you’re illiterate, I suppose.  Even if you can’t read, probably there are people who can make musical distinctions.  So it’s foolish to expect Art Music to have huge audiences, like the Monsters of Rock concert in Three Rivers Stadium, which we just had in Pittsburgh recently.  Thirty-five thousand people listening to ten hours of Heavy Metal.  It’s stupid to expect Art Music to attract that kind of following, and it never did.  It didn’t in Beethoven’s day, and it didn’t at any time.  What we’d like is some reasonable proportion that comes with some regularity, and we’ll give things a chance.  The more composers who are doing music which at least gives the audience a fighting chance, the more that people will see this is not such a bad thing, or better yet, that it is a good thing.  They needn’t have that apprehension.  In fact, after the premiere of one of my pieces a couple of years ago, my wife got really worried by literally dozens of people saying they didn’t think they were going to like my piece, but they really did.  She was afraid I’d sold out!  But that’s a very telling statement
they didn’t think they were going to like it.  What would be the signal before they’ve heard a note of this piece to make you think you wouldn’t like it?  It’s just nuts, but that’s the mindset we’ve got out there, and we just have to work to change it.

stock BD:   [Again, playing Devil
’s Advocate]  It’s not the experience of having been to a lot of concerts and gone home with a headache?

DS:   No, it’s much more complex than that.  First of all, it’s bad music education, in the general sense, and the fact that real music education is not part of general education.  The idea that someone could graduate in Liberal Arts from a university, and never have any contact with art music of any kind, that’s nuts!  What kind of education is that?

BD:   Incomplete!

DS:   Of course, but that’s the way most people are.  Here we’ve had this enormous expansion of higher education, and yet the audiences have not grown correspondingly.  They really haven’t, and if they have grown, often it’s by heavy duty marketing techniques.

BD:   Where are you getting the new audiences for New Music?

DS:   We have this theory that some of those audiences are people who haven’t been spoiled by what we were just speaking of, the
Its Beethoven’s Fifth and you will like it syndrome.  We are after the post-Rock audience, the post-Symphony audience which might have been burned on Brahms.  We ask that they come and listen to what we have to offer.  Maybe they have been chewed up by Tchaikovsky, or are tired of just hearing the same three chords.  Come, and we’ll give you a fourth chord!  We haven’t really tried these things, and in fact, we’re just about to do some market research in this regard.  But I know that there are people whose tastes are more sophisticated than just bubble-gum music, and they are, at the present, looking for something else.  I’m sure of it, but they haven’t quite been channeled in the right place yet.  That’s not going to be the salvation of New Music because it takes a big marketing effort.  I’m talking about national consciousness-raising.  But the very fact is that Philip Glass has found a very wide publicindeed, the widest public of any art composer in years, and that’s very significant.  Many of those people are not people who normally go to symphony concerts, or to opera.  Many of them are from other venuesthe art world, the theater world, the post-Rock world, or whatever.

BD:   Will the person who goes to the concert because there’s a piece of Philip Glass go to another concert when there’s a piece by David Stock?

DS:   At this point the answer is no, so therefore we have to find out what it is that is transferable and what is that is not.  That’s very complicated, and it’s going to take a long time for any of us to find out.  For example, why don’t they come when we play a Philip Glass piece?  I know it is partly a personality thing.  They know who he is, and they come to see his group, but what happens when the Chicago Symphony plays a Philip Glass piece?  There certainly will be a certain segment that will come, but how do we even find out who they are?  Unfortunately, it’s market research, and we all have to do it, and we’ve got to do it on a big scale.  When I say ‘we’, I don’t mean just the New Music people.  I mean the Symphony people, and the opera people, because they’re all talking about finding the new audience.  How are we going to get the new audience?  To get the new audience is not to try to get the same audience.  New means not the same type of person that you’ve always had there.

BD:   But I take it you do feel that it’s viable and will continue?

DS:   That music is viable, and will continue?  That composers will go on writing?

BD:   Also, will performances still be viable and continue?  Are they going survive the onslaught of the lack of audience?

DS:   First of all, there is no lack of audience, really.  The audience for symphony orchestras is perhaps very difficult to continue to build, but it still hasn’t reached the critical point by any means.  In our case, in the New Music field, we are still growing, so we haven’t reached the critical point.  It’s very, very slow growth, but, for example, in Pittsburgh we have a solid audience of 150 to 250 people.  For a city our size, they come and listen to art, and that’s not bad.  It’s actually better than not bad, but I’m being uncharacteristically modest.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let us come back to your own music.  Is composing fun?

DS:   Sometimes it is.  When it’s going well, it’s the greatest fun that there can be.  When it’s not going well, it’s not fun.

BD:   But you persevere?

DS:   Of course.  I don’t have any choice.

BD:   Are you a slave to your pen?

stock DS:   I think so in some ways... not necessarily to the physical act, but I’m certainly addicted to composing.  It’s part of me.  It is me, in a certain sense.

BD:   Are you any relation to Frederick Stock, the Music Director of the Chicago Symphony for 37 years?

DS:   Not that we know of.  David Frederick Stock is my full name.  One of my biggest mistakes in my youth, when I first started conducting, was not billing myself as D. Frederick Stock.  [Both laugh]  It would have gone over very well in Chicago.  My father never really answered me as to whether that’s where they got the middle name from.  I suspect it was.  I’m from Pittsburgh, but we had many of the old Frederick Stock recordings, and I’m sure it was somewhere in his subconscious.  So, when I needed a middle name, that was it.

BD:   As you approach your fiftieth birthday, what’s the most surprising or interesting thing you’ve noted in music?

DS:   One of the things is that no one really would have predicted that music would so rapidly get out of the chromatic phase, or that so many people would have abandoned constant chromaticism for a more approachable and more accessible styles so rapidly.  I never would have expected it, and I never would have expected it to happen to myself.  That was very surprising, and in a certain way for my own self, quite apart from what’s happened is that things have moved along well for me.  I always knew they would on some level, because otherwise I would have given up.  But my career has moved along at a reasonable clip, better than I could have expected.  But that only raises the expectations, right?  [Laughs]  It’s the old story... as soon as you are doing better, you want to do better still.  When I say ‘do better’, I don’t mean just on a career level.  I mean the intrinsic character of the music.  I think I’m writing better now, more consistently better than I was when I was younger.  Maturity, if I’ve got it at this stage, has helped.  There’s a certain confidence when the writing is going well that was not consistently there when I was younger, for good reason.  You have a certain amount of good performances, and you have a certain amount of audience attention.  When the music starts to get out there, your doubts about the quality start to diminish.  On some level they increase because you start setting a higher standard for yourself.  When you’re very young, all you want is for the music to exist at all.  Then you want it to be good, and then you want it to be really good.  So that’s the stage I am at now.  I always want the next piece to be better than the last.

BD:   Is it usually better?

DS:   It’s never good enough, in a certain way.  It’s only when one becomes smug and self-satisfied that you congratulate yourself for a masterpiece.  I don’t look back.  I’d rather look ahead than sit around worrying whether two pieces ago were good enough.  I’d rather make sure that the next one is as good as I can make it.  The music will find its own level in its own weird way.  I work very hard at promoting my music because this is my business.  I do earn my living this way.  It’s not like I was in a university with tenure, and had the checks coming in every month whether I wrote a note or not.  So, I really do work hard at it.  But quite apart from that, when I no longer work hard at it the music will find its own level, and if it’s good enough, it’ll stick around.  If it won’t, it won’t, and there’s nothing I can do about that, except to work hard and write the best music I can.  That’s separate from promotion.  Part of it is finding people who like it, and they will promote it, in a sense, by playing it, and playing it again, and commissioning new works.  So, there’s always the hope that the next one is going to be better than the last.

BD:   I wish you lots continued success.

DS:   Thank you.

BD:   Thank you for coming to Chicago.

DS:   Yes, I am not here often enough.  This visit is the first one for a performance.  I’ve had a couple of pieces done at Northwestern University in the past, but I could never come for the performance.  So this time when the Illinois Chamber Orchestra was doing my American Accents here at the Symphony League Convention, it was a good reason to come.

BD:   Thank you for spending the time with me.

DS:   Oh, my pleasure.

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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on June 18, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB twice the following year, and again in 1994 and 1999.  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.

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.

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.