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 value?

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.  Its 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 music?

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

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.

tashjian 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 of sound.

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 composing.

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 performed yet.


See my interviews with Ruth Schonthal, and Emma Lou Diemer

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 season.

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 planof 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 upan idea, for instance, that I want to continue to explore before I finish the pieceand 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 in it.

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 revising.

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.

tashjian 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 many composers?

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 so!

BD:   Should the concert promoters and performers try to get people who go to rock concerts and baseball games into the concert hall?

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 a piece.

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, too.

BD:   Are you the ideal interpreter of your works?

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 music.

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 voyagenot 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.

ashjian 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 in plastic?

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 matterin 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 published score.

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 general.

BD:   What do you feel is the ultimate purpose of music?

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, too.

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 major.

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 have?

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 from.

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.

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.