‘Tape Music’ Composer Vladimir Ussachevsky
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Vladimir Ussachevsky (Hailar, China,
November 3, 1911 – New York, New York, January 2, 1990) was one of the pioneers
of 'tape music'.
He was born in the Hailar District of China, in modern-day Inner Mongolia
to an Imperial Russian Army officer assigned to protect Trans-Siberian Railway
interests. He emigrated to the United States in 1930 and studied music
at Pomona College in Claremont, California (B.A., 1935), as well as at the
Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York (M.M., 1936, Ph.D., 1939).
Ussachevsky's early, neo-Romantic works were composed for traditional instruments,
but in 1951 he began composing electronic music. He served as president
of the American Composers Alliance from 1968 to 1970 and was an advisory
member of the CRI record label, which released recordings of a number of
his compositions. Recordings of his music have also been released on the
Capstone, d'Note, and New World labels. Some of the earlier LP items were
later issued on CD.
In 1947, following a stint with the U.S. Army Intelligence division in World
War II, he joined the faculty of Columbia University, teaching there until
his retirement in 1980. He also taught and was composer-in-residence
at the University of Utah.
He created the first electronic music in 1951 with his teacher Otto Luening.
In October 1952, a live concert of electronic music by Luening and Ussachevsky
at New York's Museum Of Modern Art was broadcast live and caused a sensation.
It included Ussachevsky's Sonic Contours
(1952), which electronically modifies the sound of a piano. Ussachevsky was
one of the most significant pioneers in the composition of electronic music,
and one of its most potent forces. He produced the first works of 'tape music,'
a uniquely American synthesis of the French musique-concrète and the
German pure electronic schools. He co-founded the Columbia-Princeton Electronic
Music Center in 1959 and directed its course for the next twenty years.
The Center was the leading electronic music studio in the United States.
Two of his most powerful and innovative scores are Suite from No Exit (1962), from the film
of Sartre’s play No Exit directed
by Orson Welles, and the soundtrack for the avant-garde film, Line of Apogee (1967). Other legendary
works that Ussachevsky composed were A
Poem In Cycles And Bells (1954) for tape and orchestra (one of the
earliest electro-acoustic pieces), which was based on Otto Luening's Fantasy In Space (1952) and his own Piece for Tape Recorder (1956) for tape.
Later works included Creation Prologue
(1961), Conflict (1971) and Creation Epilogue (1971), three parts
of the multi-movement large-scale Creation,
which were scored for choirs and electronics.
Having had a delightful conversation with Otto Luening in 1985, it
was a special pleasure to finally make contact with Vladimir Ussachevsky
late in 1987. He permitted me to call him on the telephone, and we
spoke for nearly an hour about several aspects of his long and distinguished
career. Portions of our chat were broadcast on WNIB, Classical 97 in
Chicago, and now the entire encounter is being presented on this webpage.
As usual, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.
Here is what was said at that time . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You’ve been both a composer and a
teacher for many years. How do you divide your time between those two
very different roles?
I haven’t had too much problem in that respect. I was teaching composition
for a number of years at Columbia before I retired in 1980. This was
private instruction. In the past, I was considered to be, for some reason,
a very good counterpoint teacher, and I’ve had a lot of people there.
I enjoyed it very much, even though the counterpoint I was taught was sixteenth
century, and then some eighteenth, but I didn’t find it particularly difficult.
I would say that much more time was taken away from composing by my administration
of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, which I did for some 23
years. It took time to establish it, to have it grow, to supervise
people who came in and teach those classes. But I particularly enjoy
teaching classes in electronic music, both on the elementary and advanced
level. This is what I still do when I go to the University of Utah.
I feel that the historical basis of electronic music is something which the
present, younger computer generation doesn’t know too much about. It’s
very, very important.
surprised] Why do they not know much about it? I would think
that someone studying computer music would immediately begin by learning
VU: Oh no.
That is not always the case. Just a few days ago I had a perfect illustration
of it. I was very amused by the fact that many of the structural searchings
naïveté, as well as an extremely complex way in which a computer
can now do things, were all present in the program. When people do
formally the same things that we have struggled through in the earlier period
in electronic music, they still seem to be going through the same thing.
From what I know, especially since the beginning of the digital revolution,
is that people know very little about this enormous repertoire of electronic
music and what has been done.
BD: I guess I’m
mildly appalled at that.
VU: It’s hard to
say, because many of the compositions of the late ’50s and ’60s are out of
print, as far as records are concerned.
BD: [Gently protesting]
But someone who is studying it at, even a smaller university, could have
access to a library with at least some of the recordings.
VU: I imagine they
do. But the moment you get away from the handicraft aspect of electronic
music — working with tapes and measuring the tape and
cutting the tape, and mixing several tape recorders — the
moment you go completely to a keyboard, with the digital availability
of various pre-made timbres and so forth, it’s a different attitude.
I’m speaking of that as not being opposed to it, but as a thing that many
people are doing, and proportionally, probably more people are doing it through
the current synthesizers than those who do it via more elaborate and sophisticated
computer programs, with large computers.
BD: Is there any correlation between this juxtaposition
of the younger generation and the older generation of composers, and perhaps
in the newspaper business, the old guys who worked with the manual typewriters
and now the new guys who know nothing but word processors?
At least at this present state of the art, there are so-called samplers,
the devices which make it possible for you to translate analog material
— which includes a whole world of sound, as well as
electronically generated non-digital stuff — into digital,
and then processing it in digital and back into analog. This is done,
but by and large, ever since synthesizers appeared, the emphasis gradually
shifted toward electronically synthesized sounds. So the whole thrust
of doing work with the resources that were non-electronic have become less
prominent. Also, modification of the instruments is perhaps less prominent.
You might have noticed yourself that there is a considerable proportion of
compositions now in which normal instruments are used with electronically
generated materials. Somehow, at least to my regret, the move was away
from working with what generally is known as concrete sounds. So somewhat,
in reference to the original definition of Pierre Schaeffer, the sounds from
the world at large, from nature at large, human voices are being worked with,
perhaps more often. To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t had anything
that is something like what Stockhausen (1928-2007) did with a gong in Mikrophonie I (1964), and
what I did way back in 1955 or ’56 with gong sound, as well as an enormous
number of other sources, and to me, that’s a shame. As a matter of
fact, I have given myself a clear preference now to working with the sounds
of conventional instruments which would be transformed electronically.
BD: So, taking
a sound that we all know and then modifying it, rather than generating a
brand new sound?
VU: That’s right.
BD: You may be
the ideal person to ask this next question. What, for you then, is the
real difference between hearing an electronic reproduction or recreation
of an ordinary sound, and the electronic generation of the same sound waves
so that it sounds the same?
VU: The question
is how often it sounds the same. I’m not happy with any of the electronically
generated imitations of musical instruments. When I say that, there
will be lots of raised eyebrows, because right now, so many scores, and so
many television commercials and so forth, are being done with the type of
synthesizers which delight you with imitations of these sounds. Now,
I myself still prefer to work with the sounds which were recorded from the
original instruments and then digitalized, and then made available on such
synthesizers as Kurzweil, for example. In that respect, it is just
too expensive for the manufacturer to have an exact imitation of conventional
sound in all of its subtleties, which sometimes occurs within the first fraction
of a second.
BD: Do you think
we’ll never be able to achieve this?
VU: Oh, I think
we will, and in all of these sampling devices we’ll make it more possible
for people to work with the sounds of natural instruments. Then, if
we do have that, I always wonder if it is a wonderful aid when you compose,
of where you can actually hear the types of instruments which you’re orchestrating.
Some people would say that it should all be in your head, anyway, and it should
be. But as you know, there is the old joke... There are two types of
composers — those who compose with a piano, and those
that say that they don’t. [Both laugh] I’m sure there are those
who say that they don’t and they actually do not, but perhaps I have wandered
off from your original question.
That’s all right. I like the direction that our discussion is going.
The whole question to me right now — and which somewhat begins to concern
me a great deal — is that there’s a strange kind of
a transformation. When I first began to compose, I always thought we
had a very limited audience, and perhaps with an electronic sound, whatever
that meant at the time, if it becomes more accessible and more familiar
we will have a larger audience for it. In general, therefore, this
will assist the composers in not being afraid to compose electronic pieces,
and have them available... that is, have them appreciated by a very small
audience. Right now, I would say that we have a large audience of people
who listen to these electronic imitations of conventional instruments and
don’t know any difference, or don’t think that it matters. After all,
in Hollywood, there are complete private studios in which the composers do
everything with the electronic synthesizers, assisted by programs for computers,
and that has caused a lot of problems for performing musicians.
BD: [Wryly observing]
Petrillo is turning over in his grave, I’m afraid. [James C. Petrillo (1892-1984) was President
of the American Federation of Musicians from 1940-58, and in the 1960s was
head of the union’s Civil Rights
Division, which saw to the desegregation of the local unions and the venues
where musicians played. Much of his effort throughout his life was
aimed at keeping the live musician employed at the time when recordings were
gaining strength and popularity.]
Unfortunately, that rotation won’t do much good. [More laughter]
But this kind of music is really daily-use music. I have total electronic
facilities in which there are sounds which are close enough to conventional
instruments that people are either satisfied or they don’t know any different.
What we have to still do, and which I hope will happen — and
is happening in a few cases — is to create a serious
music literature, where we have seized upon, understood, and utilized particular
characteristics of the electronic sounds with which we work. I hear
examples like that from time to time, and all of the sudden there is an electronic
piece that seems to be keeping my interest both structurally and from the
standpoint of inventiveness. The digital facilities which are now available
make it possible for people to avoid the old hiss that we had in analog.
They usually have four loudspeakers in the four corners of the auditorium,
so all of these things about which we either hoped or were able to do only
in certain academic situations, are coming through. In its present
state of development — with a very heavy emphasis on
the computer, either in control or the actual synthesis — I don’t
know why electronic music shouldn’t go through the same, I wouldn’t
say ‘limitations’, but the same
process of natural elimination. After all, of all the romantic music
written, how many supposedly masterpieces have emerged? Even in those
days, when there were no records, they just emerged, naturally. A few
of the so-called giants have survived, but what about the large number of
symphonies of all the other composer that are never heard?
BD: But now they’re
being somewhat rediscovered through recordings.
VU: Yes, but then
some people complain about that. They say that it’s musicological,
rather than a composer’s discovery. The fact is that an enormous amount
of electronic music is being produced, and I don’t think as much of it gets
on the records now as it did in earlier days. Of course, with CDs,
we probably will have more, and everybody’s now waiting with bated breath
for digital cassettes.
* * *
BD: Let me ask
you the great big, philosophical question. For you as a composer, what
is the ultimate purpose of music in society?
Everything that one does, to the best of his ability, should combine that
element of personal preference and personal novelty within the certain adventuresomeness
in structure, and especially nowadays, it should not be so far removed from
that mysterious comprehension level that it becomes rejected simply by virtue
of its complexity. We have gone through periods of extreme complexity,
and there are certain composers who are still sticking to it. I do
not approve myself of the simplicity and over-simplicity of minimalism, and
I blame it all on the generation of people who have been brought up hearing
the enormous repetitiousness of rock ‘n’ roll. Now, all the sudden,
there’s a serious music that seems to behave in the same templates or stem
out of the same patterns. I personally feel that it will go away somehow,
but at the same time, I don’t know whether we can accept again the extreme
complexity with very elaborate explanations of how this complexity has been
achieved as the next period. It’s hard to say what we should do next.
As you very well know, the percentage of the audience which is faithfully
willing to hear constantly new things is relatively small, even in any large
city, though I must say that in New York you do have a certain faithful audience
at every kind of contemporary music. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes
it’s less, and sometimes it’s somewhat embarrassingly less, but it’s very
seldom embarrassingly more. [Laughs]
BD: Should we look
for an audience that only wants new things, or should we look for an audience
that wants a wide range of things that is always expanding?
VU: I think that
you’ve put your finger on that. It should be always expanding.
I never know what to make of a performance in which there is the Mendelssohn
Octet, which is a wonderful piece
and a remarkable piece for a 17 year old, followed by a very difficult modern
quartet of some sort. I never quite know how to react to this.
I am attuned to the expectation of novelty and discovery in the new, and
then I’m suddenly thrown back into something which is a wonderfully skillful
music, but terribly obvious.
BD: It seems like
the blinders of the audience that will not listen to new music is almost
the same as the blinders of the audience that will not listen to old.
VU: Yes, and even
as some New York critics remarked in a place like Louisville, which has a
faithful audience, and which is doing wonderful things. I’ve recently
been there with a piece of Luening’s and mine that is now 34 years old.
BD: Let me turn
the question completely around. A hundred and fifty years from now,
should someone such as yourself then ask why they still perform this old,
terrible piece by Luening and Ussachevsky? Should that person of the
future demand just to have the new music?
VU: It’s very hard
to predict what will happen. If one looks back on history, musicologists
certainly have made a wonderful study of that. There is some kind of
a connection which becomes obvious between what’s happening in the other
arts and what’s happening in society itself and its music. We don’t
know what’s going to be a hundred and fifty years from now. We don’t
know even to what extent the tastes of people will be changed. I have
always maintained that our problem with education in this country, as far
as music is concerned, is that we do not take advantage of a wonderful receptiveness
and readiness to accept new things on a high school level, or even on the
junior high level. People at that age do not think that things are
strange, or classify them as foreign to the enormous amount of conventional
music that they frequently have. So from that point of view, it is
hard to predict what will happen. Before I pass away, I still hope
to understand better what the magic of Beethoven is that is so perpetual.
There’s something there, unquestionably, and more and more I think it is
just the wonderful structural sense that he had. It could be analyzed
in a way quite different from the ‘first theme and
second theme and development’ of other models and so
forth. I find that many of the contemporary composers who are successful
have some of that sense of how you space in time, and how you either instinctively
or intuitively sense the length of events, the change in events, and the
succession of such changes to create a composition that keeps more interest,
or excites more interest than some others.
Do you have this feeling within you?
VU: Oh, I think
I do to a certain extent. I go through the usual problems. My
piece, Of Wood and Brass, which
has been generally thought of as a good piece, is just four and a half minutes
long, but it took me a long, long time. I have another four-and-a-half
minute piece which went through several transformations, and which abandoned
the brass. As a matter of fact, the Dialogues and Constrasts for Brass Quintet and
Tape is the final outgrowth from twenty years after the initial idea.
I have about 120 reels of material, which ended up in the four-and-a-half
minute piece. I felt that that’s one piece to which I can add nothing
and take nothing else. So to me, I achieved something which I fought
very hard with both economy and maximum use of minimum material.
While we’re on this particular piece, I want to clear up a small detail about
CRI-227. On the back of the record jacket it’s called Of Wood and Brass. On the record
label it is called Piece for Tape Recorder.
[This recording is shown at the bottom
of this webpage.]
I know all about that.
BD: What is the
VU: The answer
is that it’s Of Wood and Brass.
A certain number of records came out before I knew what was happening.
I guess it’s just carelessness, rather than negligence when they put that
title on. Piece for Tape Recorder
is a very old one. It’s about ten years older than Of Wood and Brass, and it’s on a separate
record, CRI-112. This one is a different one. That’s a mistake
which is very unfortunate.
BD: So the back
of the jacket is correct?
VU: The back of
the jacket is correct.
BD: Another piece
has the same problem. The Wireless
Fantasy on the back becomes Short
Wave Fantasy on the label.
VU: [Larger sigh]
God. I never knew about that one. That’ll raise my temperature
again. [Laughs] I’m known as a person who puns a great deal.
The original title for that was so awful that I took it away. It was
called De Forest Murmurs. It
was dedicated to Lee de Forest, but I thought Wireless Fantasy might be somewhat more
* * *
BD: When you make
an electronic piece and the tape is played, there is no room for interpretation.
Is this correct?
comes in if somebody fiddles around with the volume control, or the equalization,
or what kind of loudspeakers you use. There’s quite a lot of difference
in that respect, but structurally, of course, it remains the same.
I have found every once in a while that the piece certainly loses something
if it doesn’t have the low frequencies that one wished, or was very dull
in the high frequencies. So in that sense, it can lose something.
As a matter of fact, Pousseur did a piece called Scambi, in which you simply give a composer
thirty-two modules, or cells, from which anybody could compose anything they
wanted. But in general, a piece on tape is fixed.
|Scambi (Exchanges) is an electronic music
composition by the Belgian composer Henri Pousseur (1929-2009), realized
in 1957 at the Studio di fonologia musicale di Radio Milano.
In the summer of 1956, at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Pousseur met
who invited him to come to Milan to work at the Studio di fonologia musicale
of Radio Milan. On his way to Milan on the train in the spring of 1957, Pousseur
formulated two goals for his new work. First, he wanted to design the work
in a way that permitted the listener to participate in its temporal formation,
which meant it would be composed of a number of small elements which could
be arranged in different ways. Second, it seemed necessary at that time to
use material that avoided the periodic character of traditional music, including
the internal structure of the sounds themselves. This meant starting from
white noise and filtering it to produce a range of noisy sounds with different
degrees of relative pitch. This came as an extension of the post-Webernian
goal of exploring structures opposed to traditional ones, especially in the
area of harmony, so that, in place of the concepts of polarity and causality
of traditional musical thinking, "Es soll alles schweben" (everything should
remain in suspension), as Webern put it.
A third factor which preoccupied Pousseur was that the time available to
carry out the work was relatively short. Consequently, it was necessary to
find relatively quick methods for the generation and formation of the material.
This was an important factor in deciding on techniques that deviated from
the microstructural devices accepted almost exclusively in electronic composition
Scambi is unusual for an electronic work in having a mobile structure.
It consists of sixteen pairs of segments (called "layers" by Pousseur) that
may be assembled in many different ways. Pousseur's original idea was to
supply these layers on separate reels of tape, so that the listener could
assemble his own version. When first created, several different versions
were realized, two by Berio, one by Marc Wilkinson, and two by the composer
himself—a longer one of about six-and-a-half minutes and a shorter one lasting
just over four minutes. One of Berio's versions is shorter still at 3:25.
Pousseur established two principles for linking the segments together. The
first is that there should be as complete a conformity in character as possible
between the end of one segment and the beginning of the next, with the objective
of accomplishing transitions as imperceptible as possible. The second is
that the formal course should be marked by the successive dominance of the
different characters. The process of assembly was complicated by the fact
that the sequences were not all the same length, but it was not required
that all thirty-two segments necessarily appear in all versions. Though Pousseur
followed these rules himself, he regarded them only as suggestions, and Berio
and Wilkinson did not conform to them when making their versions. Berio's
structures, for example, are marked by an even distribution of the various
characters, while Wilkinson's connections emphasize effects of contrast.
BD: I’m playing
devil’s advocate here, but are you not usurping the role of the performer
as well as being the composer?
Oh, I think so, but that’s been rather clear from the very first, so that
is the case. I always hid behind a very obvious idea — when
you play Furtwängler’s recording of Beethoven, that’s the same thing
because it’s Furtwängler’s recording, except that a composer has a perfect
right. In my particular case, that’s what I arrived at, and I don’t
want any other changes in it, and I don’t want any interpretations in it.
If anybody wants to interpret their own ideas, both Stockhausen and Cage have a number of things
in which you have opportunities for fiddling around any number of controls
— in both amplitude and timbre, plus the ring modulation
— in which no performance is ever the same. I’m just not
agreeing with that. Unquestionably, some performances will still be
more interesting than the others, in the same way in which some compositions
performed. For example, I have heard pieces in which there was a lot
of random give-and-take in the orchestra, where they play what they wish.
I heard of a performance in South America, where musicians were perhaps less
used to that sort of thing, where they played scales and pages. Then
so what? You’re suddenly listening to a boring orchestral tuning exercise.
the probe] Each generation has these conductors, interpreters, many
of which are routine, some of which are above average, and a couple of which
rise to the top as being so superb as to incite imagination amongst the audience.
So there’s no case in the electronic pieces where a supreme interpreter
can get up in front of the music-making device and give it his stamp?
VU: If the piece
is already fixed, then no. If you’re talking about pieces on tape which
are on records, then no amount of interpretation — or a very limited amount
of interpretation — is possible. Because I had
no other choice, I once ‘interpreted’ Gesang der Jünglinge by Stockhausen.
By ‘interpreting’ I mean that
I could not get their permission in time, nor did I receive the original
tape of four original tracks, which was five original tracks, as a matter
of fact. I couldn’t get it, and the piece was scheduled, so I took
a two-track version and distributed it to the best of my imagination to what
I thought might be interesting on a set of four of speakers. As a matter
of fact, we had more than four loudspeakers. We had about 16, and one
of the very eminent American composers came to me and said that he liked
that piece very much that way. So it was my experience, to some extent,
but also my knowing the piece, and thinking that may be made spatial in a
way. Perhaps it was very different from what Stockhausen did, but I
made very good musical sense.
BD: But that sounds
like it’s a compromise, making the best possible solution because you were
missing something that was really required.
We have this phenomenon in New York sometimes when all of the sudden, a number
of first-rate orchestras come in and you have Brahms’ Second Symphony played three times within
one year. What is being proven by that? It’s a very stable piece,
a very wonderful piece, but what is behind this? Why should it be performed
three times with a different interpretation? Do we then say, “This
one was much better,” and have a discussion how this particular section was
so wonderful and that one was not quite so good in another orchestra?
It’s pointless to me, actually. In that case, it would be just as well
to take a good recording and listen to it at home. [Laughs] But
I must say something else, however. As you know, nowadays there are
more and more so-called ‘performing instruments’,
for example the synthesizer. You have a synthesizer performing as a
solo instrument. I have written several compositions for an electronic
valve instrument, which is very interesting. They have been performed
by a student of mine, Nyle Steiner, and this instrument is now produced commercially
by Akai [shown in box below].
It is an incredibly facile instrument, and it exists in two versions.
One has a trumpet-like control, and the other has a woodwind control with
a range of seven octaves. So it’s there with a performer. He’s
playing the electronic instrument. Everything that he does is a modification,
a very clever and extremely good facility for modifying sawtooth generator,
which contains harmonics, also. So there we come to an electronic instrument,
but it’s totally under control of a performer at all times. It is very,
very interesting. One piece, Divertimento,
was put out on a Gramavision record with the Brooklyn Philharmonic conducted
by Lukas Foss [also shown in box below].
|[The material about the instrument
was copied from the Akai website in November, 2016.]
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One of the most fascinating things that I’ve heard recently was at the Audio
Engineering Society meeting in Los Angeles last May [Fifth International Congress: Music and Digital
Technology, May, 1987]. There was a fellow named Michel Waisvisz
(1949-2008) from Amsterdam, who literally walked on the stage with mercury
switches in his hands, and with sonar, and all connected to a bunch of synthesizers.
He performed a composition which was as good an equivalent to the orchestra
as I could hear. Not necessarily in quality of sound, but by timbre
approximation. He was this one-man performer. I was fascinated
with that, because there he could transfer his intentions by very sophisticated
controls to several of the synthesizers, and a man who was sitting at the
mixing panel knew somewhat in advance which particular sections wanted to
be brought up, and so forth. That was a solo performance, and we’ll
have probably more of that. I’m writing a concerto for Mr. Steiner
under a commission from Brigham Young University, and I hope that when it’s
done it will show truly a new instrument, controlled by a performer, having
a range of seven octaves, and having instant ability to change from one color
to another, having a very good imitation of brass, and quite good imitation
of woodwinds and so forth. So you see, there is that other stage where
we are beginning to have solo electronic literature with conventional instruments.
I have one piece, which has been commercially recorded, but it hasn’t been
yet issued of that same instrument with the piano. I call it Novelette pour Bourges. Bourges,
in France, is one of the very important experimental music centers.
So I wrote this piece, and it was played over there. It’s an interesting
piece, from the standpoint of showing how the timbres can be utilized.
Anyway, speaking about this new instrument called Electronic Valve Instrument,
I think it will be more better and better known as time goes on.
* * *
BD: Let me ask
you about your collaboration with Otto Luening. Is collaboration a
good thing for composers, or is it equally frustrating and exhilarating?
VU: I don’t know
if it’s particularly frustrating. Even in the latest New York Times review of a performance
of Rhapsodic Variations, there has
always been misconception as to how it was done. The fact is, Otto
Luening and I agreed, more or less in advance, who was going to do which
movement. So each person did his own movement. Now, in this case, I utilized Otto’s theme, which after
all the variation required that. So I did the second movement based
pretty closely on his thematic material. Then in the last movement
I used material all of which was my own. Then there is Poem in Cycles and Bells, and Concerted Piece for Tape Recorder and Orchestra.
[Besides being recorded by the Oslo Philharmonic
conducted by José
Serebrier, Concerted Piece was
included in one of Leonard Bernstein’s televised Young People’s
Concerts with the New York Philharmonic,
as seen in the illustration below.]
Now, in each of those cases, the orchestration was done by each composer separately.
Actually, there had to be an agreement on what instruments one uses, and
in all of those cases I did all the transitions, which are usually, but not
always, electronic. They’re transitions to connect those pieces logically.
BD: Then the question
I come back to is why the two of you worked together, and not simply have
each of you writing your own separate pieces?
VU: Otto relinquished to me the technical production
of the electronic part. He mentioned in his book, The Odyssey of an American Composer, that
he preferred to concentrate on music. We would sit down and I would
try out things electronically, and then he would make certain choices.
But I had always been more technically inclined, and therefore we simply
agreed that this would be the case. However, I find that some people
think that Otto did all the music and I did all the technical, which is not
so. Each of the movements is done by an individual within the constraints
of the orchestration agreed upon, and with my being of help technically in
putting together the electronically generated, or electronically processed
Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your
music over the years?
I would say so. The Colloquy,
for example, has been performed about six times [and was recorded by the Utah Symphony conducted
by Maurice Abravanel].
It was performed in Iowa, in California, and Gainesville, Florida.
There are no problems. I don’t think that I intentionally present problems
for the orchestra to just make it difficult. At the same time, I would
say that I’m more experimental, and I’m more willing... not to take chances,
but to go into some unknown territory more when I do truly electronic music,
than when I do it with the orchestra. You can see that these pieces
are not avant-garde in the harmonic or contrapuntal sense. They’re
fairly solid, musically, but they don’t intend to pretend to be avant-garde.
The thing that I was particularly interested in Colloquy was to give certain samples
of simple knowledge. It makes it possible to make a solo instrument
out of snare drum. That interests me a great deal, rather than concentrating
on some extremely difficult coordination between orchestra and tape.
In fact, that presents a handicap that I have been able to observe in some
of the performances by other composers. If the tape simply runs on,
it’s inflexible. As Robert Whitney said back in 1954, the trouble with
tape recorder is that you can’t look into the eye. If you tie the conductor
to a truly metronomic procedure, then he won’t be happy, and the piece won’t
come out very well, either. There’s a very definite flexibility in
there. You give certain cues to the conductor, or you make it so that
the conductor can be somewhat free within certain areas, and so forth.
It’s a special technique that has to be adapted. I haven’t actually
been unhappy with any of the performances, though I must say that I have
probably been involved myself as a so-called ‘tape recorder
soloist’ in many of those performances [as seen in the Bernstein illustration above].
BD: Do you find
VU: Yes, it’s fun.
It’s also hard work. I feel that whenever I compose, somehow I reach
into that part of my mind and imagination which is not exercised otherwise.
It is talking with one’s subconscious that fascinates me a great deal, and
the digestive process which goes on in your subconscious fascinates me because
it does prepare things. It does think on its own, and then all of the
sudden, the problems get solved. But I have both easy writing and very
difficult writing. I have some piano pieces which I tossed off, and
which people like very much, but they’re not electronic, obviously.
Then I also have Of Wood and Brass,
which took a year and a half, and it was finally reduced to four and a half
minutes out of 120 reels of tape.
* * *
BD: I want to be
sure and ask you about your choral music. Does that have a special
place in your heart?
VU: Yes, it does.
In fact, right now I am working on a composition which I must finish by December
1st that my good friend, Robert
Shaw, is planning to conduct at the hundredth anniversary of Pomona College.
It all goes back to my three years in the Russian Church, every Sunday, every
Saturday, and every major holiday, and so on, with the wonderful Russian
choral music, religious music. Therefore, I think all of my choral
music reflects that inheritance, rather than any serial influence, for example.
I like it very much, and I think my Missa
Brevis, for example, is one of my best pieces. It’s rather non-conventional,
but on the other hand it’s put together lovingly.
BD: So it’s a different
side of Vladimir Ussachevsky?
VU: Yes, yes.
I think I have that both in relation to instrumental music, and on the other
hand, especially in the first part of Creation,
which if you should read in the notes, you would notice that no other composition
exists quite like that. It was all put together from four measures,
two measures, sopranos and tenors singing together, and altos and bassos
singing separately and then synchronizing it. The whole thing was put
together from best possible recording of phrases. Then I spliced the
whole thing together.
BD: Then does any
live performance of that work pale in comparison to the recording?
VU: I only had
one or two. It is still an unfinished piece. There was a live
performance of that first part, the Prologue
of the Creation. But at the
same time, I tried for certain precision and intonation in certain complex
choral attacks that would be extremely difficult to execute in a live performance.
That’s what was interesting to me, that it did come. The electronic
component is modest, but I think it’s quite appropriate. It doesn’t
get in the way.
BD: What advice
do you have for young composers coming along today?
VU: In general,
or electronic composers?
BD: A and B.
VU: If one gives
somewhat cynical advice, I would say that every young composer should also
learn about computer software, or an accountant job. [Both laugh]
In other words, it depends. Obviously, we have in this country any number
of supportive steps for a composer to develop. I’m speaking of Guggenheim
grants, and the Prix de Rome, and so forth and so on.
Fellowships are grants that have been awarded annually since 1925
by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to those "who have demonstrated
exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability
in the arts". The roll of Fellows includes numerous Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer
and other prize winners.
Each year, the foundation makes several hundred awards in each of two separate
competitions. One is open to citizens and permanent residents of the
United States and Canada, and the other to citizens and permanent residents
of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The performing arts are excluded, although composers, film directors, and
choreographers are eligible. The fellowships are not open to students, only
to "advanced professionals in mid-career" such as published authors. The
fellows may spend the money as they see fit, as the purpose is to give fellows
"blocks of time in which they can work with as much creative freedom as possible",
but they should also be "substantially free of their regular duties". Applicants
are required to submit references as well as a CV and portfolio.
The Foundation receives between 3,500 and 4,000 applications every year.
Approximately 220 Fellowships are awarded each year. The size of grant varies
and will be adjusted to the needs of Fellows, considering their other resources
and the purpose and scope of their plans. The average grant in the 2008 Canada
and United States competition was approximately US $43,200.
The Prix de Rome was a French scholarship
for arts students, initially for painters and sculptors, that was established
in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV. Winners were awarded a bursary that
allowed them to stay in Rome for three to five years at the expense of the
state. The prize was extended to architecture in 1720, music in 1803, and
engraving in 1804. The prestigious award was abolished in 1968 by André
Malraux, the Minister of Culture.
As long as the composer doesn’t think that’s going to go on forever, he
has a way of developing while being supported in this way. Once you
get into teaching at a school, it depends how the school evaluates you.
What is your standing at that time? How overloaded are you with correcting
papers? Regardless of how some snooty Europeans condemn composers who
are at the universities, this is where a lot of music is developed, and while
very few composers manage to escape the attachment to the institution on
long-term basis, everybody has taught short-term. Every big composer
has been attached — perhaps with the exception of Copland,
but he was at Tanglewood. But what is the young composer to do?
First of all, practically every university and every music department now
feels that they should have some computer facility to compose music.
So there’s a considerable number of people who will do that. Whether
this is economically any more promising than music that they compose for
conventional instruments is hard to say. Obviously, we cannot suddenly
stop composers from composing, or stop the imagination developing in those
who wish to be composers. My advice, however, is that they should know
early that it’s not going to be an easy path. I don’t know statistically
whether anybody has talked or thought about how many composers we now have
in this country, and how many openings there are, but composers, by and large,
are not willing — and I don’t blame them — to go on the lower levels of music
education, where they could be probably very, very helpful. When you
go to college to teach, you already are facing a certain number of made up
minds, or you will have to spend time correcting deficiencies of preparation.
BD: So we’re back to the comment you made earlier,
that perhaps high school or even junior high school students are more open
VU: Oh, it could
be done. There was a college choir, and I forgot to name the conductor,
but it was in the town of Princeton he did Webern’s cantatas, and they did
them very well. Raymond DesRoches, the percussion player, had his high
school kids doing Ionisation, so
well that people usually wanted them to repeat it. [Ionisation (1929–1931) is a musical composition by Edgard
Varèse written for thirteen percussionists. It was among the first
concert hall compositions for percussion ensemble alone
— although Alexander Tcherepnin
had composed an entire movement for percussion alone in his Symphony
No. 1 (1927). The premiere was at Carnegie
Chapter Hall, an annex to New York City's Carnegie Hall, on March 6, 1933,
conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky, to whom the piece was later dedicated.
DesRoches later recorded this work with a different ensemble, and that disc
is shown at left.] It’s all perfectly possible. It’s just
that we don’t, and not enough attention is paid to that. I’m afraid
people who are in the great majority of music educators recognize that it
takes some effort and readjustment in a conventional literature, a conventional
approach, to what it is that the people are supposed to have. It will
have to be very different from when I was teaching way, way back when in
Los Angeles Public High Schools. As a matter fact, right now, in order
to attract people and to keep them interested, there is a tendency of having
a greater proportion of what may be called ‘popular
music’ than is wise, and I think it’s beginning to
show in the taste of the public.
BD: Despite all
of this, are you optimistic about the future of music?
VU: Music will
always have its place. I don’t expect that we will reach this stage
in the foreseeable future when a composer will be able to connect a few wires
of his brain into the music directly. It could be very nice, but the
future of music depends on economics, and on the ability of the important
musical organizations to survive. At the same time, as you very well
know, the survival frequently is attached to convention, to maintenance of
conventional repertory. Ralph Shapey is doing fine job in Chicago.
I don’t know, unfortunately, the size of his audience, and what his certain
traditions are that have been established. I always wish so much that
these kinds of ideas would also permeate the largest orchestras, and that
somehow the educational process would update to live orchestras introducing
new music, where they would not meet so much resistance. Then the question
has to be where is resistance from? Why is it there? I don’t
really know, but as far as the future of music is concerned, of course it
will go on. I do not know what it will be like in the year 2200 or
even 2100. [Wistfully] I once did a score for a wonderful adaptation
of Zamyatin’s We, which is set in
the year 3000. There are no names; all people are numbers. They
all march together to work, and they march back, and they only listen to
what was not called ‘electronic music’,
but is an equivalent of that. So they go to a museum to hear a piano.
[Both laugh] [We is a dystopian
novel by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), completed in 1921.
It describes a world of harmony and conformity within a united totalitarian
BD: Thank you for
being a composer, and for giving us so much interesting new music to listen
VU: Thank you very
much. At least I tried to face each piece not simply as something that
should be tossed off, but something that in some ways solves some problem,
no matter how small. Sometimes a very large problem or a small problem
gives something of me, and if that is acceptable and enjoyable, then I am
BD: Thank you for
spending the time with me this afternoon. I have learned a great deal,
and I look forward to putting more of your music on the air.
VU: Thank you very
much for thinking of me.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on October 31, 1987.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990, and again in 1991 and 1996.
This transcription was made in 2016, 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 with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.
His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other
interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call
your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with
comments, questions and suggestions.