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?

Vladimir Ussachevsky:    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.


BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  Why do they not know much about it?  I would think that someone studying computer music would immediately begin by learning electronic music.

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 recordersthe 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.

ussachevsky 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?

VU:    Perhaps.  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 stuffinto 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.

petrillo BD:    That’s all right.  I like the direction that our discussion is going.

VU:    The whole question to me right now — and which somewhat begins to concern me a great dealis 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.]

VU:    [Laughs]  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 casesis 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 developmentwith 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?

ussachevsky VU:    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.

ussachevsky BD:    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.

BD:    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.]

VU:    [Sighs]  I know all about that.

BD:    What is the answer?

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 respectable.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you make an electronic piece and the tape is played, there is no room for interpretation.  Is this correct?

VU:    Interpretation 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.

pousseur In the summer of 1956, at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse, Pousseur met Luciano Berio, 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 until then.

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?

ussachevsky VU:    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 ideawhen 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 controlsin both amplitude and timbre, plus the ring modulationin 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.  [Both laugh]

BD:    [Continuing 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.

VU:    Yes.  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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See my Interviews with Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, and Leo Smit.

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 Peoples 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?

ussachevsky 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 materials.

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

VU:    Yes.  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 composing fun?

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.

Guggenheim 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.

ussachevsky BD:    So we’re back to the comment you made earlier, that perhaps high school or even junior high school students are more open ideas.

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 state.]

BD:    Thank you for being a composer, and for giving us so much interesting new music to listen to.

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 very pleased.

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.

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, 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.