Composer  Steven  Stucky

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Composer, emeritus professor Steven Stucky dies at 66

Steven Stucky, a leading American composer who taught at Cornell for 34 years, died Feb. 14 at his home in Ithaca. He was 66.

Stucky, the Given Foundation Professor of Music Emeritus, joined the Cornell faculty in 1980. An important mentor to emerging composers for decades, he also was a prominent advocate for new music as artistic director of Ensemble X and host of the New York Philharmonic’s critically acclaimed “Hear and Now” series, among other professional roles throughout his career.

Stucky was “a generous person, great composer, wonderful teacher and model musical citizen,” said Xak Bjerken, pianist and professor of performance.

He won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in music for Second Concerto for Orchestra, originally commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Appointed composer-in-residence by André Previn in 1988, Stucky worked for 21 years with the orchestra, 17 of them as consulting composer for new music.


The same year as his Pulitzer win, Stucky also received the Medal of the Witold Lutosławski Society, and his 2000 string quartet Nell’ombra, Nella Luce (In Shadow, in Light) was included in Chamber Music America’s “101 Great American Ensemble Works.”

A memorial concert for Stucky will be held Monday, April 18, at 8 PM in Barnes Hall Auditorium, followed by a reception.

Born in Kansas November 7, 1949, Stucky was raised “in the Midwest and Southwest on a steady diet of Copland,” he once wrote.  He studied at Baylor University before attending Cornell, earning a doctorate of Musical Arts in composition in 1978.

An active and in-demand composer, conductor, writer, lecturer and teacher, Stucky was known to local audiences as artistic director of Ensemble X, the new-music ensemble he founded in 1997, featuring Cornell and Ithaca College faculty musicians on wind, string and percussion instruments, piano and voice.

In 2014 he retired from Cornell and was named an emeritus professor, and joined the Juilliard School to teach composition. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in November.

“He went out of his way to come to the Ensemble X concert last Sunday, and he was warm and generous with his students, who saw him for the first time after his surgery in early December,” Bjerken said. “He was such a gentle yet powerful influence on so many of us.”

Said Steven Pond, chair and associate professor of music: “Despite the challenges of treating his illness, Steve was an active presence in our musical community until just a few days ago. In his decades-long career in our department, Steve’s kind heart and cool head made him invaluable. His impression is left on the many graduate and undergraduate students he taught and advised.”

Stucky also continued to mentor his Cornell graduate students as an emeritus professor, Pond said.

Stucky’s works were widely performed and recorded. Album Leaves, four miniatures for piano he composed for Bjerken in 2002, appears on Gloria Cheng’s Piano Music of Salonen, Stucky & Lutoslawski, which won a Grammy Award in 2009 [shown below]. His 2012 oratorio August 4, 1964, commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus to honor the centennial of Lyndon B. Johnson’s birth, received a Grammy nomination for Contemporary Classical Composition. [More on that work farther down on this webpage.]


Highlights of his later work include the song cycle The Stars and the Roses (2012-13); the 2014 Ojai Music Festival premiere of The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts); and Winter Stars, his 2014 setting of a Sara Teasdale poem.

He received the prestigious Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for his 1981 book Lutosławski and His Music. Other honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1978, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986 and a Bogliasco Fellowship in 1997, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Stucky was director of composition studies at the Aspen Music Festival and was recently announced as director of the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood. He was a trustee of the American Academy in Rome, a board member of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and served as chair of the board and director of New Music USA.

“In his career as a composer and intellectual, Steve rose to the top ranks in his field,” Pond said.

He is survived by his wife, Kristen; former wife, Melissa Whitehead Stucky, and two children, Matthew and Maura.


Stucky was in Chicago in April of 1992 for three performances of Impromptus played by the Chicago Symphony conducted by Robert Spano.  Also on the concerts were the Schumann Piano Concerto played by Richard Goode, and the Enigma Variations of Elgar.  

We met at his hotel during the afternoon before the first performance.  Part of our chit-chat included a reference to the fact that living composers were (at that time) looked at askance by much of the subscription audience . . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Do you find that audiences come to concerts to give the living composer the ‘third degree’?

Stucky:   It depends how you approach them.  If you approach them as in Chicago, or at my orchestra in Los Angeles, by talking nicely to them first, then no, I don’t find that kind of adversary relationship.  It depends also on how you address them musically.

stucky BD:   So, you’re not talking just about the pre-concert talks, but also about the musical performance?

Stucky:   Yes, also about the music itself, so both of those forms of address.  If we treat people humanely and with respect, they give it back to you in the same way.

BD:   Do you find that the audience are basically very receptive to your kind of new music?

Stucky:   More or less.  There’s always a large handful of people who seem actually enthusiastic about the piece.  There are a number of people who go out of their way to come up to me to say that they liked it, and never does somebody come up to me to make trouble.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  People don’t come up to you and say that they hated your piece?

Stucky:   No!  Well, it once happened, actually.  There was a line of people waiting to shake my hand after a concert, and a guy came up and smiled in the way that everybody else did.  He pumped my hand and said,
I really hated your piece.  I was, in a sense, overjoyed by that, not because I want people to hate my music, but because I was so much happier having him say something to me than to go home and sulk about hating my piece.  We had a nice chat for about ten minutes about what he hated about my piece.

BD:   Did you learn anything?

Stucky:   No, but he felt better.

BD:   Did he learn anything?

Stucky:   Probably not, but he must now feel a little better about his relationship with contemporary composers since I didn’t fight back.

BD:   You took the time to actually talk to him, and listen to him.  He had listened to you, and then you had to listen to him.

Stucky:   Yes, I agree.

BD:   Do you listen to anyone besides your inner self when you’re writing music?

Stucky:   No, no.  It’s not a question of arrogance, or thinking that I have such stupendous technique that I don’t need help, but I wouldn’t know how to make use of anybody else’s view of my music.  I’m stuck with being left to my own devices.  There’s no way of getting help, really.  It’s a very solitary profession.  You’ve got to just do your best, and then you take your chances in real life, in real time, with real players and see what happens.

BD:   When you’re sitting there with a partly-filled page, and a partly-blank page, you’re writing notes and squiggles and lines and indications, are you controlling everything that goes on the page, or are there times when they just seem to appear from nowhere?

Stucky:   Ha!  Do you mean a sort of automatic writing?  It maybe surrealist music I could write with it, but no, there aren’t.  But if you mean there are times when habit takes over, I don’t think that the real subconscious, or something of the supernatural or outside oneself takes over.  But, in my case technical habits take over.  By that I mean knowing how to do things, and that one simply does them without thinking too hard about it.  These are like those occasional rewarding moments when you don’t have to dig it out with a pick and shovel, but when you really know what to do.

BD:   Is that, perhaps, some kind of inspiration?

Stucky:   No.  I’m of the Hindemith school.  Someone asked him where he got his inspiration, and he held up his pencil and showed him the eraser.  [Both laugh]  Only hard work does it, and that must be true for almost everybody... aside from Mozart.  Lots of hard work is what produces inspiration.  You have to make conditions in which inspiration occurs.  It’s not given to you.  You have to create it.

BD:   So you put down an idea, and work with that idea?

Stucky:   Yes, however bad it is.  Mind you, I’m better at giving this advice than following it.  [Laughs]  I have a tendency to wait weeks or months until I’m happy with the first ten seconds in my head.  Then I start writing the piece.  This is absolutely what I tell my students not to do, and if they adopt my method, they will write as little music as I do, I’m afraid.

BD:   [Somewhat concerned]  Do you write too little music?

Stucky:   Well, I write rather little music.  One piece a year is a good average for me.

BD:   Do you wish that you would grind out three or four major pieces, and a bunch of songs, too?

Stucky:   I’m not sure I do.  Because of my way of thinking about music, if I were able to grind out that much, it wouldn’t be music that I believe in very strongly.  I’m stuck with a slow grind that is my working style.

BD:   Then once you get the piece finished, you really believe in it?


See my interviews with soprano Neva Pilgrim, composer Donald Erb, and Edwin London (conductor of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble)

stucky Stucky:   It’s as near being worth believing in as I can make it, and I sometimes I’m not able to decide until after number of sets of performances how I really feel about the piece.

BD:   It changes for you???

Stucky:   It changes for me, and it tends to get better, frankly.  I tend to make a rapprochement with the piece as time goes on.  The initial encounter is not a question of feeling that’s not really how I heard it in my head.  A professional composer has enough experience that he knows what it’s going to sound like, but still there’s something indefinable that you imagined in your idealist pre-vision of the piece which doesn’t translate into reality.  That takes a certain getting used to
the flatness of reality, as opposed to the wonderful fantasy work before the piece is done.  So, it takes me a few hearings to really come to terms with the piece I wrote, instead of the piece I wish I could have written.

BD:   Given the continual upward technical achievement of the modern orchestral players, is there a chance that in twenty or thirty or fifty years, it will come a lot close to your idealized vision?

Stucky:   I don’t think it’s a question of playing skill.  Orchestras may get a little better, but they won’t get much better than the Chicago Symphony as it now.  It’s hard to imagine.  What players can now do is virtually perfect in many cases, and it’s hard to imagine how that will be improved on.

BD:   We’ll just move the level of perfection farther up?

Stucky:   Maybe so, but it’s a question of the difference between imagination and reality.  It’s not a question of execution by the players.  It’s a question of an idealized music that can only exist in the abstract, in the mind.

BD:   [Pursuing the idea just a bit more]  There’s no way that you could get a more idealized version of your piece with an electronic medium rather than the live orchestra?

Stucky:   I don’t think so.  Not for me, because my ideas are very closely tied, not only to instruments, to the conventional Eighteenth and Nineteenth century technology of the orchestra, but also to human execution
to rosin flying, and spit values draining, and to what it’s really like playing instruments.  My imagination is very much bound up with the ‘doing’ of the piece.  I go so far as to think of an orchestra on stage, and I conduct my pieces a lot while composing them, so as to make it as realistic an experience for me as possible, and hence as grateful an experience as possible for the players who will then carry it out.

BD:   Then the third step is being appreciated by the audience?

Stucky:   I hope so.  Audiences appreciate more readily music which is well-played, and when it’s grateful to play.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  They appreciate something that is well executed even if it’s less than inspired?

Stucky:   This is an old problem for contemporary music.  Some of us
even those of us on the inside of the profession, and certainly audiences in the 1950s and ‘60swere used to unbelievably bad performances of new music, which were under-rehearsed, and in which the players probably didn’t believe very strongly.  It’s no wonder people went home saying the stuff wasn’t any good.  It wasn’t!  Think of the pieces of Boulez or Stockhausen from the bad old daysthe 50s and 60sthe music we’re now supposed to have turned our back on.  If you play these works with conviction, it’s very convincing.

BD:   Will there now be a renaissance for the music of the
50s and 60s which is now thought of as being lost?

Stucky:   There may be.  There’s good music and bad music, but if you devote the same attention to Le Marteau sans Maître as you do to a Schubert symphony, and have the same love in the way it is played, then whether the audience thinks it understands the rhetoric and grammar of that music or not, it understands the genuine experience that’s taking place, and that’s a big step.  It makes a big difference.

stucky BD:   When did tonality cease being a dirty word?

Stucky:   [Laughs]  Apparently for some people, it never stopped.

BD:   Ned Rorem and Menotti come to mind...

Stucky:   Certainly.  One could name all sorts of composers.  Many of us just got tired of the polemic of whether tonality is a dirty word or not.  My music is often on the border of tonality.  If you had to make a technical analysis and prove it was tonal, you would probably fail in most cases.  But you hear familiar enough combinations that you can make references for yourself to the world of tonality without buying into it wholesale.

BD:   Are you trying to expand tonality, rather than go into a different pool and start over?

Stucky:   Expansion is one way of thinking of it.   It’s partly kind of nostalgia for me, too.  The music that is important to me is the symphonic repertoire and the chamber music especially of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.  It’s the meat and potatoes of every subscription series
the period of Brahms to Sibelius to Straussand it’s impossible for me to compose in such a way that I have to keep at arm’s length the music I love the most.  It makes no sense to me, so there are allusions to that world more or less constantly in my music because it’s the world I live in.

BD:   So your music is really genuine to you and to the audience?

Stucky:   I hope so, but the genuine me is conditioned by what I love.  It is for every composer.  I remember hearing a really wonderful, and very important American composer, John Harbison, who once talked about what he considered the most important influence on his development as a composer.  It was his love of Jerome Kern when he was a kid.  He still has this love, but he made the important point if you’re a serious musician, the music you love at a certain early stage of your life will never leave you, and that if you try to somehow keep it out of the product you’re making as an adult, you’re then writing dishonest music.

BD:   What was the early music in your life?

Stucky:   Certainly, composers like Bartók are very important, as well as the standard orchestral repertoire from Bach onward.  But I’m noticing it more and more that certain aspects of my harmonic language are much more deeply tied to my early experience of Bartók than I ever realized until very recently.

BD:   This is something you find out later, rather than before?

Stucky:   In this case it’s something I didn’t plan.  At the age of sixteen, I didn’t sit down and say that I needed a harmonic language, and Bartók might be a good source.  But now I discover more and more the roots of the things that I habitually do over and over again.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You studied with, among others, Burrill Philips, Karel Husa, and Robert Palmer at Cornell.  These are all tonalists.  Would you have been able to study with someone such as Milton Babbitt?

Stucky:   Probably so, and I probably would have been changed by it in some way, which may have turned out to be a good thing.

BD:   That was my follow-up question
would it have affected your musical output?

stucky Stucky:   If you’re a composer, you end up writing your music.  I don’t think my music is at all any of those three, except there is some slight resemblance to Husa in a certain way.  It’s not something I got from Husa, but something we both got from a common third source, the Stravinsky-Janáček line, which is East European from the first half of the Twentieth century.  We both also come out of Bartók.  I was attracted to his music, and enjoyed studying with Husa because we had the same roots.  But I don’t think a good teacher produces a copy of himself
even a distant copybut finds a way to enable the student to be himself.  That good teacher figures out what the student is trying to do, and then helps him do it.  Burrill Philips was wonderful at that.  [Sighs]  I don’t think many people know his music anymore.

BD:   We have done shows of his music, because I did an interview with him a long time ago.

Stucky:   [Brightening]  That’s nice.  He was a wonderful man.  I spent a year with him, and it was a wonderful experience.  Within a few minutes of you coming in the door, he had an uncanny knack of seeing what you really wanted to do, and helping you do it.  It was not to compose more Burrill Philips, but for me to compose some Stucky.

BD:   Is this what you, in turn, try to impart to your students?

Stucky:   I hope so.  I don’t have any confidence that I can do it in the way that Burrill did, but you want them to be themselves, and if they’re real composers they’ll have to be.

BD:   Are you pleased with what you see coming off the pages of your students?

Stucky:   Sometimes.  I have some talented kids right now at Cornell.   They are rather conservative in a way, and I see this in all schools.  By
conservative I mean that most of the servants I run intoboth at Cornell and other placesare stuck in a modernist outlook, which is now old-fashioned.  They have rather puritanical aesthetic views about what’s permissible in music.  I take them tapes all the time of hot young composers from all over the country whom I think are interesting.  But it’s hard to please my students.  Nothing’s ever good enough for them.  They’re very tough.  The one thing that I find a little frustrating is that it’s hard for me to get them to open their minds to the possibility that the music of 1900 to 1950 is not the only source for them.

BD:   Maybe 1950 to 1990 has something, too?

Stucky:   Yes.  I don’t really do this myself
at least not in a conscious waybut it seems to me to be interesting how many of the really talented composers around the country now are, in some way, reflecting some aspect of American culture, which is not usually thought of as belonging in symphonic music, or in any kind of serious music.  The number of composers who were rock musicians, for example, and for whom that experience remains a strong residue, let it somehow color what they do, or who are.  They are jazz musicians who simply have grown up watching television, hearing commercials, and hearing Muzak in a grocery store, and have found a way to account for some of those mass culture things in their music.

BD:   [With a smirk]  They’re making good Muzak, are they?

Stucky:   [Laughs]  No, no, it has to be better.  Some of them are making Muzak, which they think is better than it is.  [Laughter]  But no, if you think about the composers that we admire most in history
Mozart, Mahler, Brahms, Debussyin every single one that I’ve just mentioned, there’s something in the music which reflects the time and place in which their music was written.

BD:   Yet it transcends that time into other times.

Stucky:   Of course it does, but if we condemn ourselves to writing music which reflects the angst of Vienna in 1916, we’re in a lot of trouble.  We have our own angst to reflect.  We have our own time in which to live, and in which to be relevant citizens of this culture.

BD:   Is music at all political?


Stucky:   I suppose everything is political, but I don’t think that way while working, nor while listening.  The funniest experience I’ve had in a long time was to receive in the mail a copy of a review somebody wrote of a percussion piece of mine.  The article was really a wonderful entertaining Marxist critical diatribe about how young composers like me get into bed with Capitalism, and write music that people might actually like, and find easy.

BD:   [With mock horror]  Heaven forbid!  [Much laughter]

Stucky:   I thought it was one of the greatest pieces of entertainment I’d seen in a long time.  I bear no malice to the writer of it, because I enjoyed it so much.

BD:   Do you find that criticism in general of your work has been helpful to you, or helpful to the audience, or helpful to anything?

Stucky:   [Emphatically]  No!

BD:   Is it a hindrance?

Stucky:   No, it mostly is irrelevant, except for those people who really believe what they read in the paper.  But the standard of criticism is pretty low.  It really is, even in those cases where there are very intelligent men and women writing daily criticism.  They’re working against very long odds, and when they hear a new piece, the system in this country is such that they’re not likely to been able to see the score beforehand.  [In defense of some of the critics in Chicago, I have seen them with scores either at other events, or at the performances themselves.]  They probably haven’t been to a rehearsal.  In some orchestras they wouldn’t be welcome even if they tried to come to a rehearsal.  So, they hear it once, they say something, and few people believe what they say.  But how meaningful can it be on one hearing?

BD:   [Being Devil
s Advocate]  And yet the other 2,200 people in the audience that night also heard it just once.

Stucky:   Yes, it’s true, but the other aspect of criticism is that it’s a species of entertainment in a way.  You have to write in a way that makes people read.  Certainly without naming names
and, in fact, I don’t know the critics in Chicago right now very well, so you can assume I’m not talking about thembut some of the most talented critics are such good writers that their work is more about their writing style and about themselves, than it is about the piece or the performer at hand.  [Shaking his head slightly]  That’s enough about that.  [Pondering]  Was it Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde?  I sometimes like to paraphrase a comment...

BD:   George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was the great critic, who wrote music criticism under the pen-name Corno de Bassetto.

The mid-1880s marked a turning point in Shaw's life, both personally and professionally: he lost his virginity, had two novels published, and began a career as a critic. He had been celibate until his twenty-ninth birthday, when his shyness was overcome by Jane (Jenny) Patterson, a widow some years his senior. Their affair continued, not always smoothly, for eight years. Shaw's sex life has caused much speculation and debate among his biographers, but there is a consensus that the relationship with Patterson was one of his few non-platonic romantic liaisons.

shaw In 1884 and 1885, through the influence of Archer, Shaw was engaged to write book and music criticism for London papers. When Archer resigned as art critic of The World in 1886 he secured the succession for Shaw. The two figures in the contemporary art world whose views Shaw most admired were William Morris and John Ruskin, and he sought to follow their precepts in his criticisms. Their emphasis on morality appealed to Shaw, who rejected the idea of art for art's sake, and insisted that all great art must be didactic.

    --- [Photo of Shaw at left dates from 1888] ---

Of Shaw's various reviewing activities in the 1880s and 1890s it was as a music critic that he was best known. After serving as deputy in 1888, he became musical critic of The Star in February 1889, writing under the pen-name Corno di Bassetto. [A corno di bassetto is the Italian name for an obsolete musical instrument, the basset horn. Shaw chose it as his pen name because he thought it seemed dashing, saying, "It sounded like a foreign title and nobody knew what a corno di bassetto was". Only later did he hear one played, after which he declared it, "a wretched instrument [of] peculiar watery melancholy. ... The devil himself could not make a basset horn sparkle".]

In May 1890 he moved back to The World, where he wrote a weekly column as "G.B.S." for more than four years. In the 2016 version of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Robert Anderson writes, "Shaw's collected writings on music stand alone in their mastery of English and compulsive readability." Shaw ceased to be a salaried music critic in August 1894, but published occasional articles on the subject throughout his career, his last in 1950.

From 1895 to 1898, Shaw was the theatre critic for The Saturday Review, edited by his friend Frank Harris. As at The World, he used the by-line "G.B.S." He campaigned against the artificial conventions and hypocrisies of the Victorian theatre and called for plays of real ideas and true characters. By this time, he had embarked in earnest on a career as a playwright. He later said, "I had rashly taken up the case; and rather than let it collapse I manufactured the evidence".

Stucky:   Yes, he was a great critic, but I refer to the man who said (and I paraphrase) that a critic is to a composer as a dog is to a lamppost!  [Much laughter]

BD:   That sounds more like Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)!  [More laughter]

Stucky:   If I ever get exercised on the subject of criticism, I just try to remember that it really needn’t be taken more seriously than that, and if you were to believe the good criticisms, you’d have to believe the bad ones, also.  So, it’s better not to believe anything.

stucky BD:   You brought up a word a moment ago that I want to pounce on just a little bit, not in terms of criticism but in terms of music, and that’s
entertainment.  In your pieces, or in music in general, where is the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

Stucky:   It varies.  As we’re talking, I’m in Chicago for a piece called Impromptus, which is partly meant as an entertainment.  There are a couple of other orchestra pieces of mine in which I wouldn’t be embarrassed to use that word.  There are, at the same time, some symphonic pieces in which
entertainment would never be quite the word.  These are pieces which attempt to have as much gravitas as Brahms, or Schoenberg.

BD:   Your Concerto for Orchestra being one?

Stucky:   Concerto for Orchestra is the primary example, but also the Cello Concerto, and some other things.  But it does alarm me a little bit that we got to a point some decades ago in which all the arts
not only musicwere to have such a religious function to play in society, to be uplifting, inspiring, instructive, edifying...

BD:   They were not to be fun.

Stucky:   To be entertaining was beneath the arts.  Well, not only Mozart, but you could say it even about Bach.  Those cantatas he wrote every Sunday are, among other things, a rejoicing in the ability to make music in praise of God.  The element of delight is something that one would not deny oneself.  A composer whose music is nothing like mine, but who’s had a salutary effect on me in this respect, is John Adams.  He’s one of those composers who has very consciously thought about this problem, and given himself permission to be entertaining as well to be serious.  This seems to me to be an important function of art.  Impromptus is a slight piece.  It’s four little pieces, and it’s not meant to shake the world, but it should both delight and entertain the ear on first acquaintance, and intrigue the intellect on second and third acquaintance.

BD:   Is some of your music designed to shake the world?

Stucky:   No, it’s not designed for any external purpose of that kind, or even any sort of realistic practical purpose.  It’s designed to shake me.  It’s designed to make me react in the ways that one likes to react to music
with delight, anguish, the whole spectrum of emotional reactions.  I always figure that if I, as an audience of one, can really get turned on by something, or moved by something, then there will be two or three other weirdos close enough to my make-up out there, who will have similar experiences.

BD:   We’re pointing towards this, so let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

Stucky:   I have no answer for that.  It may be like the Supreme Court and its definition of obscenity.

BD:   You know it when you hear it?

Stucky:   You know it when you hear it, and you know it when you feel it in some way.  You know that you’ve had a genuine experience because you’ve had a genuine experience, and thank God an experience of a kind which, if we could duplicate by other means
by descriptions and words, for examplewe wouldn’t need the music.  We need music to supplement our emotional life in ways that we can’t do otherwise... at least I do.  You have to imagine that, as a listener, you’re not completely abnormal, or else you couldn’t go on as a composer.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You have performances of your music spread fairly wide in this country.  Are some also in Europe?

Stucky:   Some are beginning to appear in Europe in the last few years, yes.

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with those performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?

Stucky:   I have.  It’s partly because I come out of the background of orchestral playing.  I was a never good viola player, but I was an avid member of the viola section from a fairly early age.  I’ve also thought of music-making from a realistic, practical vantage point, so I’ve been able mainly to write music which is, if not easy, at least possible and rewarding for players.  In general, that makes for better performances if you write for the orchestra instead of against them, as some people say.

stucky BD:   When did you change from taking notes off the page to putting notes onto the page?

Stucky:   I started composing before I could play any instruments or read music, which is to say I had somehow glommed onto this idea that I should be a composer, and started making mock scores
gibberish, notes, and random sharps and flatsbefore I could really read.  This was probably at the age of about seven or eight.  I took up the viola at the age of about ten, and it proved to be a great advantage to read music.  I then made better progress.  [Both laugh]  I stopped playing eventually in my twenties because I was practicing less and less, and playing worse and worse, and it ceased to be a pleasure.

BD:   If someone else today were to arrive at the same position where you were, getting all of these musical feelings and yet not really being able to put them down on paper
say, putting them into a computer and getting the sound back that they wantare we creating a group of wonderfully talented musicians who are musically illiterate?

Stucky:   There’s that danger a little bit.  The problem with the computer and modern synthesizers
with editing and clipping, which a kid can have in his garage for a fairly low priceis that the production values are so high that some people tend to notice that they actually haven’t really made anything much yet, but it sounds good.  [Much laughter]  Its the same problem with computers and word processorsas soon as it’s set up with some nice font, you stop editing and making the prose better because it looks published already.  It’s a great blessing, and also something to be a little worried about.  There will never be a substitute for the kind of hard work that forms taste, and it’s easy to be misled by how slickly things can be done now with the modern gadgets.  Never the less, I admire them very much.

BD:   So you are of two minds?

Stucky:   They’ve empowered a lot of people who want to do something musical, who probably will always do it at a fairly low level, but it must have brought something into their lives.  It’s a modern equivalent of home organs, but better.

BD:   Are we going to find a couple of break-through composers who take this to a new and unexpected level?

Stucky:   I can’t see how we won’t.  If it’s not happened yet, it’s bound to.

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

Stucky:   I don’t know if there’s good and bad.  I know that there’s no such thing as progress in art.  Something happens, and then something else happens, but to say that music gets better or more advanced...
more advanced or less advanced is a really silly expression.

BD:   Can it be equated with
more complicated?

Stucky:   Yes, but how silly!  Besides which, the finale of the Jupiter Symphony is complicated enough for anybody, and no one has duplicated that recently.

BD:   Should we try to duplicate that, or should we try to create new Jupiters?

Stucky:   [Smiles]  What I mean is nobody has matched it in absolutely supreme technique.  It is very complex.  This is just an example, but that’s why notions of progress are silly.

stucky BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of musical composition?

Stucky:   [Thinks a moment]  I wish I were.  It’s not so much composition I’m pessimistic about.  I’m a little pessimistic about the institutions which now exist, including the symphony orchestra.  It seems to me less and less believable that these things still exist.  I’m overjoyed, and so are subscribers to orchestras like the Chicago Symphony, but they are so marginal a part of our society.  There are fewer and fewer people for whom this is a central part of their lives.  I’m always afraid the whole thing is going to vanish in front of my eyes.  It’s no longer a central cultural icon, even to those who don’t go.  It’s now simply irrelevant to most people, and it worries me a lot, really.  I feel lucky that this particular institution
the symphony orchestra, which is what I really compose foris still around at this moment when I need it.  But I really very much wonder if, in fifty years, pieces I’m writing for orchestra, or better pieces by better composers for orchestras, will have any place, or be needed for anything.

BD:   Might they exist only on flat plastic?

Stucky:   Maybe.  That’s certainly been the trend for many years now.  Away from the real time live musical experience, a great many people are disappointed when they hear a real orchestra because it hasn’t been edited, and dials haven’t been twiddled, and so on.  It’s not the way it sounds in their living room.

BD:   Usually, it’s not loud enough for them.

Stucky:   There is that, although Orchestra Hall is very present, and that’s not a problem here.  There’s nothing more exciting than being in the same room with a real orchestra.  I’m an absolute groupie of orchestras.  I’m now in the fourth year of residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Somebody actually offered to pay me to be an orchestra groupie!  I couldn’t believe my luck.  It could be considered that the job is to hang around an orchestra, and to soak up the culture of orchestra players.  There’s nothing better for me.

BD:   So you live on two coasts at once?

Stucky:   [Smiles]  Well, it’s not easy, [with a nudge] but US Air is very grateful to me for keeping them in business single-handedly over the last few years!  But, it’s difficult.

BD:   You’re originally from Kansas?

Stucky:   I was born in Kansas, grew up there and in Texas, but I’ve lived mainly in Upstate New York for about twenty years now.

BD:   So it’s really not fair to say that your music comes out of the Midwest, like Virgil Thomson
s, who was from Kansas City, Missouri?

Stucky:   I suppose it’s not, but even though my point relates to Thomson, I
m speaking of Mel Powell, the winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize.  He teaches at Cal Artsthe California Institute of the Arts near Los Angelesand I played a tape of my Concerto for Orchestra for his class one day.  He didn’t know much about my biography.  Although we are friends, he didn’t know my past at all.  At the end of it he asked if I was from the Midwest.  He had somehow divined that in the big tune of the slow movement.  It’s a kind of music that mid-Westerners write.  It’s the kind of music that you write under that big sky, and he was absolutely right.  There is something of that sort, even though the same music had been emulated by city boys like Bill Schuman, and Copland.  There’s something American in some of my pieces which comes from the experience of the size of the country, and the flatness of it, too.  Mel is very smart.  He’s a delightful person.

BD:   Every time I think about him, though, I still shudder because he was supposed to be on that ill-fated plane with Glen Miller in 1944.  I’ve played Mel’s music quite a bit.  It’s very interesting.

Stucky:   Yes.

BD:   Is composing fun?

Stucky:   No!  For me it’s not.  For me it’s very hard work.  I’m a person who has a tendency, if there’s no deadline looming next week, to maybe put it off.  It’s very hard work.  Almost anything is easier
teaching, administration, chopping wood, anything is easier, and I rather avoid composing at some periods.

BD:   [Happy to ask the obvious question]  They why do you do it at all?

Stucky:   I probably shouldn’t say this on the air, but the fact is I can’t help it.  In the end it’s something I have to do, and it’s the only thing I know how to do.  So, where would I be?  [Both laugh]  But it’s not fun.  I do know composers who get up every morning, and they just can’t wait to put in their six hours, and produce thirty pages.  I envy them, but I’ve never been that way.  There is always a point at which a new piece becomes fun, but it takes weeks or months to get to that point.  After a certain momentum has very slowly accumulated, the piece begins to exist on its own.  It begins to have ideas about itself in the way that I imagine novelists may sometimes create characters who begin to live slightly apart from the writer.  They occasionally do things he doesn’t expect, and when a piece gets to that point, then it can be great fun, and you can see the end in sight.  You know how to get there.  You have to work out one or two details about how to get past some little obstacles, but then it’s a great joy.

BD:   It sounds as if you’ve gone over the hump.

Stucky:   Over the hump, that’s right, and then it’s downhill.  But it takes a lot of work to get to that point.

BD:   Is that hump about ninety per cent of the way through?

Stucky:   Ninety per cent of the energy has been invested, even if ninety per cent of the notes have not yet been written.  There’s a huge spiritual investment at the beginning in terms of time and anguish and sweat and elbow grease getting the piece to stand on its own two feet and exist, so that you can then see how it’s going end up and function and why.

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success with your music.

Stucky:   Thank you.  It’s been a great pleasure to talk to you.


See my interviews with William Kraft, Chen Yi, Christopher Rouse, and Anders Hillborg


See my interviews with Michala Petri, and Anthony Newman

© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 23, 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994, 1997, and 1999; on WNUR in 2009 and 2013; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2009.  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.