Composer Charmian Tashjian
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Charmian Tashjian teaches theory, aural skills, and other theory
classes at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois,
as well as humanities courses. She has taught classes ranging from
music history, music theory and aural skills, and
composition to acoustics, music appreciation, Trends in 20th & 21st
Century Art & Music, and Women in the Arts, among
others, at Columbia College, Northwestern University,
DePaul, Lake Forest College, and the College of Lake County.
She earned her doctorate and bachelor's degrees in music composition
and theory with a minor in the humanities from
Northwestern University, and her master's degree from
Stanford University. She has received awards and commissions
for her compositions for chamber, orchestral,
and electronic works. Her compositions have been performed
in concerts and on radio broadcasts throughout the United
States, Europe, and Australia by various musical
organizations, including the Ravinia Festival, the Chicago Chamber
Musicians, Symphony II, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago,
the DuPage Youth Symphony, and many others. Her
music has been published and recorded commercially.
We met for this interview at Tashjian’s
home in late May of 1987, and as we were setting up, she spoke of an upcoming
concert presented by the Midwest chapter of American Women Composers,
featuring her String Quartet, as well as quartets of Rami Levin,
Kathleen Ginter. There was also to be music by Jane Roberts, Janice
Misurel Mitchell, Undine Smith Moore, Louise Farrenc, and Amy Beach.
Bruce Duffie: Is this a good thing to have
a concert of music just by women composers, or would it be better to
scatter the women out through general concerts?
Charmian Tashjian: I would think it would better
to scatter them on general concerts, however that is not usually the
practice. In order to get the music of women composers performed
now, they want to expose the public to as much historical music as well
as contemporary pieces of women composers. We hope that by programming
these pieces, we’ll get them established on regular concert repertoire
of other organizations as well, and that has worked so far.
BD: Is there any real difference between music
composed by a woman and music composed by a man?
Tashjian: I don’t think there’s any real tangible
difference. Of course, there’s going to be some differences, just
as there’s a difference between a man and woman. But I don’t think
it’s something that you can pinpoint, and I don’t necessarily think
one is better than the other.
BD: It’s just differences from person to person?
Tashjian: Right, just as my music is different
from any other of these women on the same concert, so it is different from
a man’s music. It’s my own perspective, and my own statement, just
as a man’s statement is his own statement as a person.
BD: Is this what you look for in your music,
or in any music, to make a statement about something?
Tashjian: I try to do that, yes.
BD: In your music or in pieces by others, is
there a distinction between the artistic statement and an entertainment
Tashjian: It’s difficult to say, because other
composers may not necessarily feel they have to make a strong statement,
or any statement at all. But, in my music I try to make a certain
amount of a statement, and hope that it will be entertaining as well.
BD: Tell me the particular joys and sorrows
of being a composer in the late 1980s.
Tashjian: In the ’80s
it’s very exciting being a composer, because there are so many things
going on. So many people are composing, both men and women, and
we’re finding different personal styles in each and every one of us.
It’s very stimulating to have so much going on, especially in a
city like Chicago when you have the opportunity of having a festival
like this one, the Burnham Park Festival. It’s
just one of the many things that are going on in the city, which is stimulating
and good for a composer. I’m enjoying it, and there’s a lot that one
can still say and do in the 1980s.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future of
Tashjian: Yes, I certainly am. I don’t
know if I can predict any trends because everyone is at the point where
they’re doing their own thing. Who knows what the future will bring
for all of us? In a way, right now it seems like there’s a lot of
influence of non-western music on composers, as well as a definite return
to our tonal, traditional styles from what was going on in the ’60s.
BD: Is this a good thing, or just a thing?
Tashjian: It’s just
a thing. I don’t know if I can put any judgment on it, being in
the midst of it all myself.
BD: You’ve got a husband and a family. How do you
balance the role of wife, and mother, and teacher, and composer?
Tashjian: It’s not easy! I’m finding
it difficult, but it’s getting easier as my son’s growing older.
My husband helps a lot by letting me try to get all those things accomplished.
It’s never going to be easy to balance those hats, but I’m working
it out all right. I put in long days sometimes... [Laughs]
BD: What do you teach your child about music?
Tashjian: I’m working with him on violin a little
bit, because I’m formerly a violinist myself. He has a little sixteenth-size
violin, and I have been working with him and with Suzuki tapes. We
play a lot of music at home on tapes and records, and he’s very musical.
He always wants to have some music on. [Tragically, Aric Evan
Tashjian McClure died on August 4, 2017 in a fire that trapped him in a
second floor apartment in Round Lake, Illinois. He was 33 years old.]
BD: What kinds of music does he like?
Tashjian: He likes all kinds. He’s very
open-minded. It’s really interesting. He likes folk music,
and classical music, and contemporary-style music. I put on Xenakis the other night,
and was surprised that he really liked it.
BD: Is this the kind of thing you would encourage
other mothers, who are not composers, to explore with their children?
Tashjian: It’s very good to keep their minds
open, and play various styles of music, yes. Personally, that’s
what I would like to try to do.
BD: You also teach music. What courses
are you teaching?
Tashjian: At the moment I’m teaching Musical
Acoustics at Columbia College. That involves the physics of sound,
primarily. It gets into the science of sound, and uses basic physical
properties that you would have in a physics class, and applies them to
the production and propagation of sound. It involves a little bit
of math, as well.
BD: It sounds like you’re teaching about the
side of music over which you have control.
Tashjian: That’s true, over the production
BD: You understand what you can’t control,
so then you can control the rest of it?
Tashjian: Yes, I try! [Much laughter]
BD: Have you also taught theory and composition?
Tashjian: Yes, I’ve taught that at Northwestern
University, and DePaul University.
BD: This is one of my favorite questions to
ask working composers. Can musical composition really be taught,
or must it be innate from each individual?
Tashjian: It can be taught to a certain extent,
but you do have to have that innate desire to sit down and write it out,
tear it up and write it out again, and really spend many, many hours on
it. Of course, you have to have some ideas before you can do all
that. It’s something that can be taught to a certain extent, but
it’s really up to the individual to be able to master the final art of
BD: Then where’s the balance between the
inspiration and the technique?
Tashjian: The inspiration needs to come first,
and there has to be something there to write about. There has to
be an idea, an inspiration that keeps you working and working and working
to write out something, and get it the way you like it, eventually.
If it’s not right the first time, you’ll keep working on it because you’re
inspired by something, and want to express something about that idea.
Technique is important in order to get the idea across, so you do have
a fine balance point there. But there has to be an idea and an inspiration
there, and you go to school to learn composition in order to be able to
hone the techniques to more easily express yourself, and to put in orchestrational
effects that are pleasing and interesting for the listener as well.
BD: When you come upon an idea, how do you
know if it’s going to be for a string quartet, or for a vocal piece, or
a piano sonata? How do you know where it will fit in?
Tashjian: I usually start with my instrumentation...
unlike certain other composers. [Laughs] I’m not a composer
who will just sit down at a piano, come up with an idea and work on it,
then decide it will be for string quartet, and continue working on the
piano with it. I’m a composer who is very set in the orchestration.
Once I start a piece, I don’t change the instrumentation at all.
I start with my basic instrumentation. I don’t work at the piano
too much, and I don’t make too many changes, unless I’m writing for an orchestra,
and can draw upon the many resources of an orchestra. But if I’m
writing a string quartet, I know before I start that’s what I’m going to
write, and I come up with my ideas at that point.
* * *
BD: Do you get lots of requests for pieces?
Tashjian: I’m getting some now as a result of
the recording of Resan that is on Capriccio Records (shown
below). I’ve written a string quartet that will be performed
on the Burnham Park series concert. It was commissioned by the American
Association of String Teachers. They wanted a piece that was going
to be appropriate for junior high, or high school string students.
I always try to write for someone, or some ensemble, even if it’s not
a commission, just because I want to get it played. I don’t want
it to sit on the shelf and get dusty. I have something in mind for
someone, or some purpose. I did write an orchestral piece for my
dissertation thesis at Northwestern, and that is one of the few things
that hasn’t been performed yet. But I’m trying to get that performed...
BD: I like the way you said it hasn’t been
Tashjian: I’m working on it. It’s difficult
to get those types of pieces programmed. I’m also now commissioned
to write a piece for the The Loop Group, an ensemble of contemporary music
in Chicago, so I’m looking forward to writing the piece for them for next
BD: When they come to you with a commission,
how many parameters do they give you, or do they give you a lot of latitude?
Tashjian: They’ve been giving me a lot of latitude.
I have a variety of instruments that I can select from, and the style
and the length was left open. Writing the string quartet, I was limited
in that to a level of students who don’t have the technical capabilities
of mature professional performers. That did put a limit on the technical
playing that I could write for, but otherwise, I’ve been very glad to
have very few restrictions.
BD: In the midst of writing a piece, how do
you know when it is finished?
Tashjian: That’s an interesting question.
I’m continually re-reading what I’ve written, and it takes me quite
a while just to sit down and look over what I’ve already done before I
continue writing. I am always reviewing the material, and then continuing
at that point whenever I begin writing again. So, as I’m going along,
I get the feeling of the timing of the piece, and usually I have a plan
— not necessarily a form, but a plan
— of about how long I want the piece to be, and
how long I want each of the sections within it to be. Most of the
time, that will tell me when to finish. Sometimes there might be
something that comes up — an idea, for
instance, that I want to continue to explore before I finish the piece
— and that continues to lengthen the piece a
little bit. But I start with an idea of an architectural ground
plan for the piece, and that is something I keep in mind throughout.
BD: Are you in control of the music, or does
the music control you as it’s going onto the page?
Tashjian: It’s interesting that sometimes it’s
the latter. Usually I like to think I’m in control, but an idea
can get away from me sometimes. I keep trying to work with that idea,
and other things will come from it and develop from it. It’s neat
that just one idea will spring from another idea, and it isn’t all under
my control all the time.
BD: Are you ever happily surprised at where
it winds up?
Tashjian: Oh, very much so, yes! For
instance, in Resan I started out with a motive that is somewhat
inspired by a Gamelan, and as I was working through the piece, that
motive continued to be used rather freely. I was also doing some
deciphering of Medieval music at the same time, and at the end of the
piece, that Medieval music that I’d been working on for a class, combined
itself beautifully with my motif, and I came up with some counterpoint
that I normally would not have thought about. It just made itself
so manifest that I couldn’t do anything but combine them. They
were both running through my mind all the time, and it was fortunate that
they combined very nicely. I didn’t know it was going to work out
that way. So, that’s what I mean when I say I’m not always feeling
like I’m totally in control, because something like that just happens sometimes.
BD: When you hear a piece of yours, are you
ever surprised by what you hear?
Tashjian: Not unless there are some mistakes
BD: Who finds some mistakes
— you or the performers?
Tashjian: Oh, the performers [laughs], unless
they make mistakes in the music while they’re performing.
BD: Do you ever go back and revise your scores?
Tashjian: Yes, I have gone back and done some
BD: Are the revisions always better?
Tashjian: I think so. Typically, they’re
notational things that could be better understood by a performer if
they were changed. The notation is made a little bit more clear.
Sometimes, in some of my music in the past, I wouldn’t have a meter,
and I decided that it was too difficult to play something without some
form of meter, even if it would be irregular. So, I have gone back
and put in some time signatures for them, for ease of the performance.
Notation of things like quarter-tones, or other effects, are changed just
to make sure that they can be understood. Typically, that will happen
after a piece has been first performed, and then I will revise it.
Maybe I should have made something a little bit more clear, and have gone
back and changed it.
BD: Are you basically pleased with the performances
you hear of your music?
Tashjian: Yes. I’ve
had some very fine performances, and gladly I can’t say I’ve had too
many bad ones.
BD: How much latitude do you allow your performers?
Tashjian: I like to see the performer translate
what I have on the page as much as he or she wishes to. I try
to stay away from telling them exactly what to do all the time, because
I’d like to have them interpret it, and feel that they’re making a statement.
They’re communicating with the audience.
BD: Do they ever find things in your score
you didn’t even know you’d put there?
Tashjian: Oh, yes! They’ve done that,
too! [Much laughter]
BD: Is the act of composing fun?
Tashjian: I enjoy it very much. It’s
a lot of work, though. It’s very, very time-consuming, and sometimes
it’s tedious, but it’s very fulfilling, especially when I’m through and
I’ve heard the piece played. Then I am very, very happy.
BD: You’re constantly working on new pieces, I assume?
Tashjian: I’m trying to constantly be working
on something new all the time. As I said, sometimes I’ve gone
back and done some revisions, but right now my next project will be to
write the piece for the Loop Group for next season. I’m getting
ideas for that now, and I’ll be working on that this summer a lot.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] Bring it with
you to the beach and to parties.
Tashjian: Well, maybe not to parties!
[Both laugh] [Photo at left shows Tashjian (seated far left)
with other Harper College faculty members, where she might or might not
have been contemplating a new musical idea!]
BD: Do you always have the music going in
your head, and tuck away ideas that come to you in various odd places?
Tashjian: Yes, I do have that always continually
going through my mind, and I try to be able to jot something down if
I get some idea.
* * *
BD: Let’s talk a little bit about recordings.
Do you feel there are enough recordings of new music on the market?
Tashjian: No, I’m afraid that the number of recordings
is certainly far less than the amount of new music that’s being put out.
It’s unfortunate that the recording industry is dominated by
the music of the past... not that it’s bad, but the voices of contemporary
composers aren’t being heard enough. Even if it’s not a recording,
just in concerts there is not enough contemporary music being programmed.
With so few recordings, it’s unfortunate for contemporary composers because
you could have such a wider audience.
BD: What can we do to get the audience larger
for contemporary music?
Tashjian: Continually adding new music to programs
on radio and concerts, and expanding the amount of recordings available
of contemporary music would help a lot. Instead of hearing ten
Beethoven Ninths come out in one year, have some more new music.
It’s very, very difficult to get a piece recorded these days, and you’re
often just lucky to be able to do so as I have been. The interest
of conductors, of orchestras, or ensembles in programming new music is
sometimes there, but they’re afraid that they’ll lose their audience by
putting too much of it on. That’s not really the case if they are
judicious about the choice and the programming of the music
— when to put a new piece in, and with what other
pieces on the program.
BD: At whose doorstep can we lay the blame for
this — the public, the critics, the
audiences, the management, the composers?
Tashjian: Often it’s a problem of management,
and the publishers are hesitant because they don’t want to lose money.
The publishers will not publish or record new music that much just
because they don’t think it’s going to sell like a traditional piece
will, and it’s probably true. It’s a vicious circle right now, and
I’m not sure I know the way around it. Especially with the advent
of CDs, there’s still a very wide market for all different types of music,
and voices of contemporary composers should be heard more.
BD: At what point are we going to have too
Tashjian: I don’t think you can have too many
composers. I don’t think that will happen. There probably
were too many composers in Mozart’s day, but not so many of them have
survived, and that’s probably what will happen with the composers of
the ’80s. I wonder how many of us will be
heard in the year 2080, for instance.
BD: Do you expect your music to survive?
Tashjian: I really don’t know. I hope
BD: Should the concert promoters and performers
try to get people who go to rock concerts and baseball games into the
Tashjian: There’s an attempt now to try and
do that, especially with certain styles of music. I think it’s
feasible. I don’t know how well it will really continue to work.
I’ve been teaching music appreciation at DePaul University, and I try to
get those kids, who are usually just listening to rock music, interested
in contemporary as well as traditional classical music and jazz, and it’s
helped to open their minds. They have taken an interest in going
to concerts of music that they normally would not have wanted to do in
the past, so that’s been very rewarding for me. But it’s not possible
unless you educate the listener a little bit more about what to listen
for, other than just having a rock beat, for instance, or the lyrics of
BD: Is rock, music?
Tashjian: Yes, I think it’s music. Certainly
it is, but it’s just a style that has certain things that you listen for,
and that you appreciate, which other styles of music may or may not include.
It’s just another style of music. I believe it’s music, but each
style has things that you need to listen for, and understand about in order
to appreciate it and enjoy it.
BD: What do you expect of the audience that
comes to hear your music?
Tashjian: I don’t really expect a lot of the
audience, except that they have an open mind. I’d like to hope
that the audience would be open and willing to listen to what I have
to say, and that they’ll enjoy it as well.
BD: Do you still perform?
Tashjian: I have done a lot of performing
in the past, but I’m not performing at present right now. I’m
finding little time to practice violin right now, but I have done a
lot of performing in the past, yes.
BD: Do you conduct your own works?
Tashjian: Yes, sometimes I’m conducting them,
BD: Are you the ideal interpreter of your
Tashjian: No, I don’t think I am the ideal interpreter.
As I said before, I like to see a performer be the interpreter of the
work, and do something with what I have notated on the page, and make
something of it if they wish. Therefore, I don’t necessarily like
to conduct my own works, or perform my own works.
BD: Are you a better composer because you
were also a performer?
Tashjian: It helps to have had a strong performing
background, but I don’t know if I’m a better composer for it. I
would think it would make me a better composer of string music because
I’ve been a string player, but not necessarily a better composer of other
BD: We were talking about the different kinds
of music. Is it good that we’re breaking down the artificial barrier
between serious music and popular music?
Tashjian: That’s important to do because contemporary
music has been somewhat isolated, particularly for audiences.
You see in so many of the contemporary concerts the same people at the
same types of concerts, and breaking those barriers is important in order
to have new music reach a wider audience.
* * *
BD: Let’s talk about the piece you have recorded.
Tashjian: This is Resan. It’s about
fifteen minutes long, and is for a large ensemble of percussion. It
includes having several percussionists, as well as four soloists
— a double bass, an English horn, a viola, and
an amplified harpsichord. It is called Resan, which means
‘voyage’ in Swedish, and it’s meant to be a voyage
— not just through geographic lands. It begins in
a kind of Gamelan-ish sound, and goes through other international styles
of music. It’s also a voyage through time, and at the end it becomes
even Medieval. With having a harpsichord, you can’t resist having
a Baroque section in the middle.
BD: Why this particular combination of instruments?
Tashjian: I was very interested in writing
for a large percussion ensemble at the time, and I just wanted to explore
the many timbres that are available for it. I’m not really sure
why I chose the solo instruments I did. At that point, I was looking
for certain colors. The harpsichord needs to be amplified with the
large percussion ensemble, but also that color is something I was looking
for. The English horn, the viola, and the double bass all have a very
rich mellow sound, which in my mind, combined nicely with the marimbas
and a number of other percussion instruments. I just wanted to organize
the piece around that sonority, that color.
BD: Are you pleased with the recording?
Tashjian: Yes. There are some things
that could be improved, but it was very well done. They did a good
job practicing that one. There are just some interpretation things
that could always be ironed out.
BD: Does music work well when it’s embedded
Tashjian: I like to have more live performances
of my music in particular because I’m always interested in having it heard
— and in hearing it myself, for that matter
— in different interpretations, and with different
performers. When it’s on plastic, and it’s set in its style of performance,
you’re predicting what’s going to happen next after a certain point,
and I’m not sure that’s always great. Of course, it does make it
available to people, and that’s important too.
BD: Availability of recording is perhaps even
more important than the availability of the published score?
Tashjian: Yes, in a certain way, because you’re
attracting a wider audience with the recording than you would with the
BD: Is that what you want
— the widest possible audience?
Tashjian: It’s important to reach a wide audience.
If you are ready for a very limited audience, then it becomes very stifled
and inbred, so to speak, and I don’t think that’s good for music in
BD: What do you feel is the ultimate purpose
Tashjian: The ultimate purpose would be to
express the composer’s thoughts and ideas, and perhaps make a statement
that he or she would like to reach an audience, and to have them enjoy
hearing the sonorities and techniques, and everything that goes along
with that piece of music as well. It’s something that ultimately
one really should enjoy when they’ve given room to it, as well as hopefully
appreciating its subtleties and ideas.
BD: Let us come back to your organization, which is
part of American Women Composers.
Tashjian: It’s the Midwest Chapter, and the national
organization is ten years old. Our Midwest Chapter celebrated
its fifth anniversary this year. The chapter includes Chicago area
composers, as well as composers from other states in the Midwest region.
[This was in 1987. In 1995, American Women Composers
would merge with the International League of Women Composers, and
the International Congress of Women in Music to form the International
Alliance for Women in Music.]
BD: My first question about this is why did
it take so long? Why is it only ten years old?
Tashjian: There have been groups of composers
up until now, but the national group was formed by Tommie Ewert Carl
in the Washington D.C. area, which is where the headquarters are.
It’s very hard to get a national organization started. There probably
was, and still is a local group there, just as we have a local group here
in the Midwest, but to set one up with the scope of a national level took
a lot of organization, and a lot of work, and, of course, a lot of money,
as well as time and effort. I’m not really sure why it took that
long. Nationally I think it’s approximately 200 composers, and locally
in the Midwest area there are about forty-five composers now, with about
thirty of them residing here in the Chicago area, which includes Milwaukee,
BD: I hope this concert goes very well.
I assume there’ll be more concerts by the Midwest Chapter?
Tashjian: This is our last concert of the
1986-87 season, but we’re planning a number of concerts for next season.
Information on that has not gone out yet, but we probably will
be doing a concert in an art gallery, and in various locations in Chicago.
BD: Is it good to do concerts in strange locations,
rather than always in a concert hall?
Tashjian: I think it’s good, and again, it’s
hopefully opening the music to a wider audience, which is always important.
We usually do new music in a concert hall. At a gallery, for instance,
you don’t always have a piano to use, so you’re limited to what you can
program sometimes. But we try to do music in various locations just
to attract more audience for the concerts.
BD: Do you feel that you are part of
a musical lineage?
Tashjian: To a certain extent. My parents
were both musicians. My mother and father met as they were singing
opera. My father is an architect by profession, and just enjoys
singing as a bass, and my mother is a very fine contralto. Now
she’s doing a lot of piano teaching as well, so yes, there’s a certain
lineage that I’m from.
BD: Did they encourage you to be composer,
or did they just encourage you to go into music?
Tashjian: Both! At first it was just encouragement
to go into music, and as I continued to study, I turned further and further
towards composition. I began my undergraduate studies at Northwestern,
still as a performer, a violin major. Then, in my sophomore year,
I decided to go into theory and composition. As I continued to study
composition more and more, I felt that was the area I should continue
to develop and go into. So, I continued from that point as a composition
BD: Do you ever see the time when you’ll be
supporting yourself completely from your writings?
Tashjian: No. I’m afraid that won’t
happen due to the limited amount of recordings and publishers that one
can have, or the number of performances of contemporary music right now.
BD: But is that an idealistic idea you would
Tashjian: It would be nice, idealistically,
but I don’t think that’ll happen. I don’t think too many composers
are able to do that these days. Even in Beethoven’s day, and earlier
than that, composers have always had to struggle for a living. So
it’s not something that you’re going to feel you’ll be able to make a living
BD: Do you feel that your music fits in with the
music of other composers of this generation, and the previous generation,
and the future generation perhaps?
Tashjian: I hope so! It’s hard to say.
It would be nice to see it happen that way, that it is an outgrowth of
previous music and a starting point for music of future generations.
Ideally, that would be very nice.
BD: I wish you lots of continued success.
Tashjian: Thank you.
---- ---- ----
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in suburban Chicago on May 27, 1987.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB two weeks later, and again
in 1988 and 1995. This transcription was
made in 2020, and posted on this website at that
time. My thanks to British soprano
Una Barry for her
help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was
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.